Can adult players change technique?

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so the saying goes. But can you teach an adult table tennis player a new technique? 

As a later developer myself – and having spent the past 10 years coaching a lot of adult players – I know how challenging it can be to change the way you play a shot.

When you have spent years (or decades!) playing a shot in a certain way, it can be very difficult to change technique. The neural pathways are pretty deep and the muscle memory is very set. Your body seems to act independently of your brain. No matter how much your brain thinks about what you should do, your body reacts in the way it is most familiar with.

Changing this can be a very difficult challenge. But not impossible.

The secret I have learnt – both in my own game, and through coaching others – is slowness. You have to develop the new technique slowly and give yourself a lot of time.

When you try to make a significant technique change there will likely be several things you need to alter, e.g. body mechanics, swing trajectory, timing, bat angle, contact on ball. Basically, you may need to change everything.

A big technique change is the same as learning a new skill. And with any new skill – tying shoe laces, learning to drive, speaking a new language – you start with the basics, at a slow pace.

My rubbish backhand

To illustrate this process, let me tell you about my backhand technique. When I played for fun as a child, I developed a very unusual way of playing backhands. I would reach forwards to the ball and swipe sideways. It was a strange technique and not very effective!

The ‘reaching forwards’ part of the stroke became a habit and something which has always stayed with me.

When I started playing again as an adult, I tried to avoid using my backhand because it was so unreliable. I used to hate the warm-up with my opponent before a match. Forehand to forehand would be OK. But when we switched to backhand to backhand, I could only play two or three shots before messing up. Any opponent with a brain could see my backhand was useless and then, in the match, would play lots of balls to my backhand and beat me easily.

To improve, I had to completely rebuild my backhand technique. At first I tried to play backhand attacks like the best players in the club. Did this work? Not at all. I would maybe get 1 in 10 on the table. The one shot I landed would be great. But I had no real idea why it worked and why the other nine missed. It was more luck than judgement.

I decided to take the opposite approach and go back to the very basics.

I taught myself how to do a very basic backhand drive, at a slow pace. I just wanted to get the fundamentals right – the timing, the contact, the swing trajectory.

This probably took me three years. There was a lot of unlearning to do. My tendency was still to reach forwards to the ball and swipe, so to change this habit took a long time. But during these three years I did manage to develop a consistent backhand drive. It wasn’t much of a threat to my opponents, but it stopped being such an obvious weakness. It was consistent. I began to believe in the new technique.

Then I started to evolve my backhand drive into a backhand topspin. This required using my wrist more and brushing the ball. This is something I had never done on my backhand. Once again, I did this slowly. My topspins weren’t very fast or very spinny, but I was just getting a feel for the right technique.

Progress wasn’t straight forward at all. My backhand would change between flatter drives and smoother topspins, and I didn’t always feel in control of what I was doing. When under pressure in league matches, my old habit of reaching forwards to the ball would come back and my new technique would break down. But at least I was recognising why my shots were going wrong and what I needed to change.

This process from evolving my technique from backhand drive to backhand topspin took another three years. But now I had an ‘OK’ backhand topspin technique, which was reliable and occasionally capable of winning shots.

The next stage was to increase the speed and spin, but maintain consistency. I did this gradually. Everytime I tried to be too aggressive, the technique would break down and the old habits would creep back in. So I increased the speed, slowly. The focus was on keeping a good technical shape for my backhand topspin, but play at a pace which would challenge my opponents more.

This is the development phase I am still in. My backhand transformation is not complete, but it’s getting there. When I am relaxed I can play good quality backhand topspin attacks, which are capable of winning points against very good players. Against some opponents, I actively engage them in backhand to backhand rallies as I know I will dominate and win.

Annoyingly, when there is a lot of tension, the old habit of reaching forwards still creeps back in, but it happens less frequently now. 

This entire process has taken me 8 years so far. It has been slow going. I’m sure I could have done this in less time, if I really focused on it. Or maybe I’m a slow learner.  But the process has worked.

The slowness obstacle

This slow approach to changing a technique can be a major obstacle for many adult players. They don’t want to feel as though they are getting worse. They don’t want to risk losing to a player they would normally beat. They think it’s best to stick with what they have.

Other players simply don’t think they have the time. It will take too long and will take too much effort. I can understand this. Players are usually in a rush to improve and my ‘slow method’ isn’t a quick fix. 

But ask yourself this question: will you still be playing table tennis in five years’ time?

If yes, you have time to make a big technical change. Years 1 and 2 will probably be frustrating, as you develop the new technique, but don’t really see any benefit in your match results (and you may get worse!). 

But in years 3, 4 and 5, you will really see improvement and you will be so glad you committed to the technical change. You have a short term dip, but in the long term you experience a big improvement.

Making a big technical change as an adult can be a huge challenge and can take a long time. But it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. You have to start slowly. Treat yourself as a beginner. Accept you may get worse initially. But put ego to one side and keep focused on the long term goal. And most importantly, take your time.

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