One of the most inspiring moments of the table tennis event at the Rio Olympics was Vladimir Samsonov getting to the semi-final of the men’s singles.
On the one hand we shouldn’t be surprised Samsonov got to the semi-finals. He has been a top player for such a long time and currently holds the record for most ITTF world tour titles (26). He is still ranked in the top 10 in the world.
But what is surprising (and reassuring for many), is that Samsonov is still able to compete with the best in the world, despite being 40-years-old, which actually puts him into the veterans age category.
Modern professional table tennis is increasingly physical, favouring younger bodies. To reach an Olympic semi-final at the age of 40 is a phenomenal achievement.
What can we learn from Vladimir Samsonov’s success? How can we keep on competing with younger players and play close to our best when past our physical peak?
Here’s four lessons I’ve learnt from watching Samsonov.
Lesson 1 – Block, block and block some more
Samsonov blocks a lot. He’s brilliant at it. Blocking has always been a strength of his game, but it’s more important now than ever before.
As we get older, it becomes harder on the body to play a very aggressive topspin game, all the time. Aches and pains creep in and the body begins to object more and more.
Blocking requires much less physical effort. It’s all about ball control, bat angles and feeling. The other player does all the hard work and you just effortlessly block the ball back giving the the other player all their speed and spin back at them.
You could be 40-years-old, 60-years-old, 80-years-old – any age at all – and you will be able to block all day long without breaking much of a sweat.
Yet, as Samsonov demonstrates, a great block can be a devastating shot. Blocks can be used to force mistakes from opponents and hit clean winners. You can use steady blocks, aggressive blocks and trick blocks.
I don’t think there is anything more satisfying in table tennis than blocking back a big topspin shot for a clean winner, especially if the other player is 20 years younger!
Lesson 2 – Make your backhand as strong as your forehand
When you watch professionals play, you will see they are forever stepping around the backhand corner to play forehand attacks. They then recover to play forehands from the opposite corner.
They can do this because they are (a) young (b) physically very fit (c) have practiced the footwork to execute this shot for many years.
But my goodness, this gets harder as you get older. It’s physically exhausting and as your leg-speed slows, recovering to reach the ball in the opposite corner becomes really tough.
Enter Samsonov. You rarely see Samsonov step around the backhand corner to play forehand attacks. Why? He doesn’t need to, because his backhand is as strong as his forehand.
Where other players make big movements in the backhand corner to make space for their stronger forehand, Samsonov makes a smaller movement and uses his backhand instead. He is able to play in a more central position and conserve his energy.
If your backhand is as strong as your forehand, you don’t need to step around the backhand corner to play forehands. Your body will thank you and you will find it easier to compete a higher level for longer.
Lesson 3 – Make your opponent miss
Blasting an opponent off the table, like Ma Long does, is a brilliant way of winning a table tennis match. But it also requires a lot of energy, and joints and muscles which don’t cry out in pain.
Samsonov shows us that all-out attack isn’t the only way of winning a table tennis match. He is a master at making his opponent miss. A lot of his points come from errors from his opponents, rather than his own spectacular attacking shots.
One of the ways he makes his opponent miss, is with fantastic ball placement. He is always trying to play to the lines (long or wide) or finding a player’s cross-over point. He will keep an opponent off balance and force them to make error.
We have an 80-year-old playing in our league in Cambridge. He plays in the second division, so still a decent standard. He doesn’t move all that well any more (he is 80!), but his use of placement is brilliant. He finds some great angles and tries to move an opponent wide off the table. More often than not, his opponent messes up the next shot.
It’s his focus on placement, which enables him to keep on competing and beating players a lot younger than himself. Like Samsonov, he doesn’t have to use loads of energy to blast his opponent of the table. He makes his opponent make the mistakes.
Lesson 4 – Focus on touch rather than power
Samsonov has a wonderful feel for the ball. He mixes up different shots – pushes, flicks, topspins, blocks and lobs. He mixes up speeds. He mixes up spins. He keeps an opponent off balance with his unpredictability.
He may not have the speed of the younger players, but he has the ability to play any spin from any ball (much like Waldner).
This isn’t easy – in fact it’s very difficult – but as we get older (actually any age), focus doesn’t have to be on how hard we hit the ball, we can also focus on how well we can control the ball – using touch to keep balls short, to change speed, to change spin.
Again this doesn’t require as much physical effort as hitting 100 forehand topspins, but it can be just as effective.
Age is no barrier
Getting older doesn’t mean you have to get worse at table tennis.
Yes, at some point, explosive movements become harder to do and become less effective. There’s no much point stepping around the backhand corner to hit a big forehand topspin, if you don’t have the legs to get to the next ball.
You may need to change elements of your game to keep competing at a high level, and with younger players, for longer.
But Samsonov, and Waldner before him, shows that it is possible. Of course, it’s unrealistic for an ameteur player to attempt to play at the same level of these two great players. But we can learn from them. It’s possible for any player, at any age, to improve their blocking, their placement, their touch and to make their backhand as strong as their forehand.
Well done, and thank you, Vladimir Samsonov. We look forward to watching you at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020!