I coach a player in his 80s (he wants to remain anonymous, so I’ll call him Harold).
When he was younger Harold was a defensive player. But now he is in his 80s, it’s not so easy for him to run around behind the table and keep retrieving balls. It’s no longer effective for him, as he doesn’t have the physical conditioning to play like this.
So Harold has had to change his playing style, from a defensive chopper to something more attacking, playing closer to the table. This has not been easy. In fact it’s been very difficult. But Harold has made huge progress. And he has succeeded in changing many of of his defensive habits.
In this blog post, I’ll explain how Harold has managed to change his habits and how you can change your table tennis habits too.
In our first ever coaching session in 2015, Harold turned up with an old pimples bat. He liked to push and swipe and chop but didn’t have any conventional attacking strokes (drives or topspins).
Because of his age, I didn’t want to change too much. I thought it was too late in his life to make big changes to technique. My approach was to take what he already had and make it better.
But Harold wasn’t satisfied with this. His existing defensive playing style was becoming less effective because he didn’t have the speed and agility to keep retrieving balls.
He wanted to change. He wanted to ditch his pimples bat. He wanted to learn how to drive and topspin. He wanted a playing style where he could win points quicker and didn’t need to move around as much. He wanted to change from a defensive player to an attacking player.
I knew this would be a challenge, bearing in mind that Harold was 80. I have numerous habits I have tried to change over the years and I know how hard it can be and how long it can take and I’m in my 30s. But Harold was determined to change, so we went with it.
Fixing the forehand
The toughest challenge we faced was changing Harold’s forehand technique. When he was younger Harold would always chop with his forehand. This means he developed a very strong habit of always doing a backswing where the bat went up, with the bat face open. He must have played this stroke thousands and thousands and thousands of times. So the habit was very ingrained. The pathways in his brain very deep. His muscle memory very established.
This backswing is great for chopping but makes life very difficult if trying to drive or topspin, where the backswing needs to be lower and bat angle more closed.
So we spent session after session after session, trying to change the backswing and bat angle. It could take all session just to get a basic forehand drive working. Progress! But in the next session the backswing swing would revert to his old chopping style. We would repeat everything we’d previously done and get the forehand drive working again. Progress! Then next session, back to the chopping style again.
Sometimes Harold would get the backswing right, but the bat angle would be all wrong and the ball would keep going off the end of the table. Other times the bat angle would be right, but the backswing would be too high and he would hit down on the ball and put it into the net.
At times, I think we both despaired and we had very honest conversations about whether we should continue trying to develop his drives and topspins. It just seemed so hard to change Harold’s technique.
One of the remarkable things about Harold is how determined he is to improve at his age. He didn’t want to give up. Even though it was very difficult for him to change, he embraced the challenge. He wanted to learn and master new techniques. So we kept going.
As the months and years passed, his forehand drive slowly began to improve. Each session it would take less time to get the his forehand drive technique working. His chopping backswing was gradually disappearing. New pathways in Harold’s brain were being formed.
Eventually Harold was able to start a session playing forehand drives with no instruction from me whatsoever. His backswing was in the right place. His bat angle was correct. He could hit, 10, 20, 30 forehand drives with no errors.
Despite being in his 80s, despite having a lifetime of playing his forehand in a certain way, he was able to change. He was able to transform his forehand from a defensive stroke into an attacking stroke.
Learning from Harold
Changing a habit can be very hard. But I find Harold very inspirational. If he can change some heavily ingrained habits in his 80s, then surely anyone can change.
So what can we all learn from Harold? Here’s three things which really stick out for me…
1. Acknowledge the problem and embrace the challenge
I think the first step is to accept that there is something you need to change. In Harold’s case, he knew he couldn’t play his old defensive style effectively anymore because he wasn’t agile enough. If he wanted to keep playing (and being competitive with his peers), he had to change the way he played. Harold completely embraced this massive challenge. He was open-minded. He was prepared to try new things. He knew it would take a lot of work. But he was up for the challenge.
2. Get help from a coach or advanced player
Harold came to me to get help and advice. This accelerated the learning process. I was able to quickly see if there was anything obvious he wasn’t doing correctly and help him fix it. I showed him how to do a forehand drive and gave him drills to practice the shot. I’m sure Harold could have done it without me, but I suspect the process would have taken much longer.
3. Practise, practise, practise
Harold embraced the challenge and sought out expert advice, but none of his improvement would have happened without all the hard work he put in himself. Harold did a lot of practise with his robot at home and during practice sessions. Practise, practise, practise, practise, practise. More practise. Even when he was starting to get it right, he went away to do even more practise. He kept repeating the same action again and again and again (thousands of times) to establish new muscle memory. It was very tough and it took a long time, but he did it!
If you want to change a table tennis habit, you really need to commit to it. You can’t approach the task half-heartedly. Embrace the challenge, get some help and just keep perservering. It can take a long, long time to change a habit – to change your muscle memory – but it can be done. I have done it with my own game (I’ll write about this another time). Harold has done it in his 80s. Go for it and don’t give up!