I am right handed. I write with my right hand. I throw with my right hand. I play table tennis and all racket sports with my right hand.
But in a couple of weeks I am going to make my table tennis league debut playing with my weaker left hand. Why would I do such a silly thing?
Well, a couple of years ago, I started to play with my left hand in a coaching session. The player I was coaching often struggled against weaker opponents – players she knew she should beat. She would get nervous and tentative and play terrible.
So I wanted to see what actually happened. I played left handed to replicate a weaker player. This was a very useful coaching tool, as I got to see with my own eyes how this player approached the game.
It was so useful, I started to do it with other players I coach, who also struggle with the mental and tactical side of table tennis.
Then an odd thing started to happen. I started to win many of these matches. This was never my intention, but it kept happening. These wins were definitely not because of my technical ability playing with my left hand. My technique was terrible. My shots were weak. My footwork was confused. My coordination was very clumsy. But somehow I would win, probably because the player I was coaching got a little panicky – “how embarrassing if I lose to someone playing with his weaker hand” – plus tactically I knew how to make the most of my limited ability.
I didn’t really think any more of these left handed wins in coaching sessions. There was no grand plan. Playing left handed was just a useful coaching tool for me to assess how players approach uncomfortable situations.
But fast forward a couple of years and I am vastly improved with my left hand. My left handed matches have become more regular and I use my left hand against more players of a higher standard.
When I am not coaching, I have started to play with my left hand in club practice sessions. The past few weeks have been particularly good. I feel there is more fluency to my strokes and footwork, and playing with my left hand is starting to feel a bit more ‘normal’.
I feel I am ready to take the next step. So I am going to put my left hand to the test in our Cambridge summer league. I am only scheduled to play one game (three matches), but I might play another if someone drops out.
My goal will be to win one of my three matches. I am starting in a lower division, so I think I have a chance. In practice matches I have beaten Division 4 and Division 3 standard players, but not Division 2 standard players. That is a step too far at the moment! Even if I don’t win any matches, I hope that I will be competitive and give each opponent a challenge.
Learning a new skill
Is there any purpose to me playing left handed?
No, not really, but it is very enjoyable to learn a new skill. And the process of learning to play with my left hand has reinforced my belief in the importance of deliberate practice and repetition.
A few players I coach have praised me for my ambidextrous skills. But I don’t see it that way. And I don’t consider myself ambidextrous. Nothing felt natural when I started playing left handed. It felt so alien and my movements were so slow and uncoordinated. I felt like a complete beginner. But I kept an open mind and stuck with it, and gradually it started to get easier and easier to do. Anyone could do it, if they had the inclination, which I acknowledge is not many people!
The learning process reminds me of my children learning to eat. At first the hand to mouth movement is jerky, uncoordinated and there is no consistency. Some food goes into the mouth, but much more goes elsewhere – chin, cheeks, nose, eyes, ears and hair!
But kids have to eat, so they get to practice this skill every day. Gradually they become more co-ordinated and accurate and the food mostly goes in the mouth. When my eldest son reaches adulthood, he may even have learnt how to use a knife properly!
Regular repetition = skill improvement.
You probably don’t want to play with your weaker hand. But maybe there is a new table tennis skill you do want to learn. Maybe you want to change from a topsin attacker to a defensive chopper. Maybe you want to switch from shakehands grip to penhold grip. Or maybe there is a new shot you are keen to master. Anything is possible if you approach the challenge with the right attitude and put the effort in.
For me, playing with my left hand is still mostly for fun. But if I keep improving, maybe I’ll take it a little more seriously and play an entire league season or a tournament with my left hand.
Or maybe I will get humiliated in my summer league match and never play with my left hand again!
I’ll write an update in a few weeks to let you know how I got on. In the meantime, here is a video of me playing left-handed with Ferenc Horvath. This video was recorded in October 2020, and I feel I have made a lot of improvement since then…