At the beginning of June, I had the pleasure of playing with England no. 1 Liam Pitchford. Liam has been English champion on six occasions. He has won numerous medals at World Team Championships and Commonwealth Games. He has a career high world ranking of 12 and has beaten most of the best players in the world, including both Ma Long and Xu Xin. Basically, Liam is exceptionally good at table tennis!
So why the heck was Liam playing with an average local league player like me? Had he seen footage of me on the internet and decided I was an exceptionally good training partner?
Did he need a new coach and after weeks of research and deliberation select me as his number one choice?
Nope, don’t think so.
Was he harassed and cajoled into making some videos with me for my YouTube channel?
Yes, that’s a bit nearer the truth!
Liam very kindly gave up some of his time between his hectic tournament schedule to travel to Cambridge and take part in a 4-hour filming session. This was a collaborative effort between myself, Bribar Table Tennis and Victas, who sponsor Liam.
The filming session
The day before the filming session, I showed my 10-year-old son the match where Liam beat Xu Xin in the semi-finals of the ITTF Qatar Open. He watched the footage open-mouthed and eventually told me “You have literally no chance. He is going to destroy you”. Thanks son.
It’s always slightly nerve-wracking playing with a professional player. I definitely get a big dose of imposter syndrome. Under normal circumstances I would have no chance of sparring with Liam. For him, it’s a bit like playing with a beginner – a complete waste of time! And in an effort to look half-decent when playing, I was initially much more self-conscious of my technique, which actually made me play worse. This then increased my imposter syndrome complex.
But this wasn’t about my table tennis skills. I was here to do some filming of Liam. As long as I could set the camera up properly, plug in the microphones and press record, I was doing a good job. My sub-standard table tennis skills were of secondary importance.
So what did we film? Well I filmed Liam performing a range of strokes, from different angles, with both my main 4K camera and also my slow motion camera. I’m going to use this footage of Liam and compare it to footage of myself, so we can clearly see the difference between a pro player (Liam) and an amateur player (myself). What is that Liam does to get extra speed and spin that we can all learn from? It should be a really fascinating video series and something which will benefit all of us amateur players who want to improve the quality of our shots.
I also filmed some of Liam’s favourite training drills, his sneaky behind the back shots and a little target practice challenge.
Can I beat Liam?
To finish off the filming session, I challenged Liam to a couple of matches. The first was a handicap match. We play up to 21 points, but Liam has to give me a certain number of points head start.
You may remember that I did the same with Paul Drinkhall, when I filmed with him a few years ago. Paul gave me a 17-0 head start and then proceeded to thrash me 21-17. I didn’t win a single point!
I told Liam this and he did look a little worried. He thought I had improved since I played with Paul, so was unsure whether he could match a 17-0 headstart. But then the competitive urge took over. Whatever Paul could do, Liam could do better. So he gave me an 18-0 head start.
Did I manage to win a point this time? Could Liam come from 0-18 down and beat me? You’ll have to wait a little while to find out.
I also challenged Liam to a left handed match, where we both played with our weaker hand. This match I was much more confident of winning, but it didn’t quite go to plan. Again, you will have to wait a little while to find out who won.
Learning from Liam
And what was it like being on the receiving end of Liam’s shots? His ball placement is unbelievably accurate. All his shots seem to be close to the lines, whether deep or wide. I found myself taking two steps back just to have any chance of returning his shots.
Liam is famed for his fast backhand attacks – and yes his backhands were exceptionally fast, but so was his forehand too. I was expecting his forehand to maybe be a little safer. No chance. I had as much trouble, maybe more, returning his forehand attacks.
What surprised me most was that Liam’s attacking shots felt quite flat. Very fast. Very low over the net. Very direct. Very hard. I asked Liam about this and he said it is harder to get as much spin with the 40+ balls, so at the pro level power has become much more important. He takes the ball early and hits it damn hard towards the lines. I watched hundreds of balls fly past me with little hope of getting my bat anywhere near the ball!
What I also found interesting is that Liam’s technique is a little unconventional. I think this will come out in the video footage. The shape of his shots and the way he uses his wrist isn’t classic table tennis technique. But I think this will give some great learning points for us all. How exactly does Liam create all this speed and power? And what can we copy from Liam to enhance our own performance? Liam is also a reminder that there are multiple ways of performing any table tennis stroke. If you can find a way of playing, which is fast and consistent, then you can achieve success. In Liam’s case, a huge amount of success.
I will be releasing the video footage of my time with Liam on my YouTube channel over the next few months. I think I have around 10-12 videos to publish.
You may also be interested in Liam’s Masterclass coaching series he recorded with Table Tennis Daily Academy. This is a paid for series, and it is a little pricey, but there is loads of excellent content, so definitely worth the investment.
And finally, to give a flavour of what is to come, below is a very short clip of Liam doing one of his favourite drills (forehand from forehand, forehand from middle, forehand from forehand, backhand from backhand).