Coping with defeats in table tennis

Losing. We have all experienced it, lots of times. The moment of anguish, when facing match point, you send the ball into the net or your opponent smashes the ball past you. Game over. Another loss to add to the list.

Emotions vary depending on who you’re playing. If you lose to a player of a similar ability level, you often feel a sense of regret, “I know I could have beaten that player if only I had done X, Y Z.”

If you lose to a player of a higher ability level, you can often feel a sense of hopelessness, “They are so much better than me, why do I even bother playing?”

And the worst scenario – if you lose to a player of a lower ability level, you will often feel a sense of despair / depression / embarrassment (take your pick!), “That’s it, I quit. I’m never playing this stupid game again.”

Losing can be very dispiriting. But don’t despair. Instead of dwelling on a loss in a state of self-pity, you should try and take a positive approach. Losing provides a great opportunity to learn about your weaknesses – whether technical, tactical, physical, mental or something else entirely. By identifying a weakness, you can take pro-active steps to address the issue, which will help you improve and perform better against the same opponent in the future.

So here’s my step-by-step process on what you should do after you have lost a match…

Step 1 – Analyse your performance

You may want to block the defeat from your memory, but don’t. Relive the match and ask yourself, ‘how did I lose points?’

Did you keep pushing the ball into the net? Did you keep missing the table with your attacks? Did you lose points straight from your opponent’s serve? Did you give your opponent easy balls to attack?

If you don’t find it easy to analyse your own performance, ask for feedback from someone else who watched the match – a coach or another player. They will spot things about your game you may not even be aware of.

Identifying how you lost points will help you work out which areas you need to improve. In a match I lost last season I really struggled to control my opponent’s heavy topspin attacks to my backhand. I could get to the ball easily enough, but I kept blocking long. Not just a little bit long, the ball was flying past the end of the the table by some distance! I must have lost 7 or 8 points doing this, which cost me the match.

What did I learn? Obviously, my backhand block sucks and I need to improve my block by contacting the ball earlier, getting my bat higher and closing my bat angle more.

Step 2 – Watch how other players play the same opponent

You can learn a lot by watching how other players play the same opponent. If they beat the opponent you lost to, what did they do differently? How did they win their points? What tactics did they use? Did they make the same errors as you? If not, why not?

Continuing the example above – after I lost my match,  I watched my team-mate Yordan play the same opponent. He won. In fact he won quite comfortably. Yordan was able to disrupt the attacking flow of this player through aggressive returns of serve and some heavy backspin pushes. The player just wasn’t able to get his heavy topspin attacks into play very often.

What did I learn? Yes, I need to improve my backhand block, but wouldn’t it be even better if I made it harder for my opponent to attack in the first place? If I can improve how I return serves – more assertive, better placement – then I won’t be giving my opponent so many easy balls to attack. And if I work on getting my attacks in first, then my opponent will be worrying more about my topspin shots, than I worry about his.

Step 3 – Make notes

After you have analysed your performance and observed other players playing the same opponent, it’s time to make notes. This is a really crucial step. If you don’t make notes, you’ll forget what you did wrong and you’ll probably make the same mistakes when you play the same player again.

Make notes about the following:

  • what happened during the match
  • how you lost points
  • how you won points
  • how other players achieved success against the same player
  • areas you need to work on
  • tactics to use when you play the same player again

These notes will serve two purposes. Firstly, they will help clarify what you need to work on in training (see step 4). And secondly, they will help you develop a gameplan to perform better when you play the same opponent again (see step 5).

Step 4 – Work on your weaknesses in training

In the first three steps you will have identified a weakness (or weaknesses) in your game. Don’t just accept that you’re not very good at a particular skill. Be pro-active and do something about it.

If you have a coach, ask them to look at your technique and suggest any adjustments. Don’t have a coach? Ask an advanced player in your club or one of your team-mates.

When you have made any necessary adjustments, work on some training drills where you use the relevant stroke (i.e. backhand block). Ideally, the drills should replicate a match situation. You’d be surprised how quickly you can turn a weakness into a strength with some targeted practice.

For me, my homework was to improve my backhand block and also my return of serve. Do I now have the perfect backhand block? No. But I do keep more backhand blocks on the table. Can I put my opponent’s under pressure with every return of serve? No. But I don’t give my opponents as many easy balls to attack. These small improvements can be worth an extra 2 or 3 points in a set – enough to turn a potential defeat into a victory.

Step 5 – Plot your revenge!

This is the best part. You’ve identified your weaknesses, you’ve made improvements and now it’s time to get revenge. Before you play the same opponent again, consult your notes. They will remind you of what to do (and what not to do), and what tactics to use.

Of course, if the player is much stronger than you, you may not be able to turn defeat into victory at the first attempt, but you can certainly aim to win more points. If you are more evenly matched, then your aim should be to win. It won’t happen every time, but when it does, the feeling is great.

Embrace your defeats

Everyone loses, even the best. Earlier in the month world number 1, Ma Long, lost to 15-year-old Wang Chuqin in the quarter-finals of the Chinese National Championships. Admittedly Wang Chuqin is a pretty amazing 15-year-old player, but in his current form Ma Long would have expected to win quite easily.

You are not alone in losing. But how you approach your defeats determines how you improve in the future. If you don’t learn from your defeats, you’ll simply repeat the same mistakes again and again.

If you embrace your defeats, accept them as part of sport, work on weaknesses, you will win more points against players you have lost to in the past. And if you win more more points you have a better chance of turning a defeat into a victory.

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