I often get asked whether being a coach helps me improve as a player. There is an assumption that when you start to coach, your own improvement stops. You spend too much time feeding, too much time instructing and too much time talking. You don’t have time to work on your own game. So you don’t improve.
But is this true?
Yes and no. Let me share my experience so far…
When I did my first coaching qualifications (UKCC level 1 and level 2), I was just starting out as a coach. This meant I wasn’t actually coaching that much. So the lessons I learnt during the qualifications – technique, tactics, mindset – was of great benefit to me as a player.
I thought about table tennis in a different way. I understood table tennis is a more comprehensive way. My technique improved. My range of shots increased.
The tips I gave to other players about footwork, stance, spin generation, ball placement and shot selection I also implemented in my own game. I definitely improved.
The lead instructor of my level 1 qualification told me that some players sign up to the course, not to get into coaching but to get better at table tennis!
So if you only do a little bit of coaching, but still have plenty of time to practice for your own game, then coaching can definitely help you improve.
As I increased my coaching hours, and subsequently quit my job and started coaching full-time, things got a little more complicated.
The more coaching I do, the less time I have to practice as a player. Over the past year, I think I have averaged 2-4 hours of practice per month. This is not a lot, considering I was doing 4-6 hours of practice per week before coaching full-time.
So in a week, I may play table tennis for 20 hours. But 19 hours I’m the coach. 1 hour I’m the player.
I am playing a lot of table tennis every week. This is clearly benefiting me in some ways. But the lack of purposeful practice for my own game, means I have completely stalled in other areas.
Here are some things I have got better at since coaching full-time…
Watching my opponent – During coaching sessions I have to play and watch the other player, so I can give feedback on the player’s technique, timing, footwork and shot selection. This has been very beneficial for me when I play matches. By watching my opponent more, I see what shot is coming next that little bit sooner, which means I can react quicker.
Speed control – When coaching, I have to control the pace of the drills. This sometimes means slowing the ball down or speeding up, depending on the level of the player. This is a very useful skill when playing matches. Sometimes I need to inject more pace into the rallies, but other times taking the pace out of the rally can really disrupt the other player. Some fast attackers just don’t know how to respond to this!
Ball placement – When coaching, I need to be accurate in my ball placement, both in regular and irregular drills. This has been very useful when playing matches as my ability to hit different areas of the table (from anywhere) has improved a lot.
Backhand technique – A lot of coaching requires feeding the ball using my backhand. The sheer volume of balls I have hit using my backhand means my backhand technique is now far more consistent. This has made me a stronger allround player. My biggest weakness (my backhand), is pretty solid now.
Pushes and blocks – I am becoming a master of pushing and blocking – especially blocking! So much of my coaching is about developing the attacking skills of the other player. So they topspin, I block. Topspin. Block. Topspin. Block. When you block 20 hours a week, you get very good at it!
Things which haven’t improved
But it’s not all positive. Here are some areas where I have stopped improving…
My attacking game – When coaching, I rarely get to be the attacking player. And since I do so much coaching and so little practice, I simply don’t get to practice my topspins, flicks and smashes anywhere near enough. So my improvement has stopped. Actually, I would say my attacking game has deteriorated. I find it harder to put together a series of strong attacks. My sharpness, my recovery, my timing – it’s not as good as it was.
Footwork – My footwork is not very good at the best of times, but too much coaching certainly hasn’t helped. During coaching you need to conserve energy and it’s very easy to get a bit lazy – standing too upright, reaching for balls rather than moving. All of this reinforces bad habits which seems to have filtered through to my competitive matches. To develop really good footwork, you need to practice it. And I don’t spend enough time practicing.
Match sharpness – And finally, I have found that too much coaching has had an impact on my match sharpness. It’s very easy to slip into ‘coach’ mode when playing matches and play too passively. In league matches last season, my team-mate James often had to tell me to snap out of my coaching mode and start playing more positively. And he was right. But having the attacking sharpness is difficult, if you don’t practice enough.
My attacking problem
So I have a bit of a problem. Over the past 10 years, I have tried to become a more attacking player. I want to be the player initiating the first attack, taking control of the rally and bombarding my opponents with relentless attacks.
But since becoming a full-time coach, I have very little time to practice this style of play. And this isn’t going to change. I really enjoy coaching and I have lots of players who want coaching. So I can’t see that I will ever have lots of practice time available again.
So what can I do?
I have been thinking about this a lot over the summer. And I’m seriously considering changing my playing style – changing from “all-out attack”, to a version of “push, block and counter”.
Yes, that’s right. I’m going to be that annoying player who just tries to get everything back and then picks off the weak balls. THE BRICK WALL! This style is all about consistency and making the other player miss. Playing ugly. Winning ugly.
Why would I do such a terrible thing?
Well, the “push, block, counter” playing style is based upon skills which I’m practising 20 hours a week in my coaching sessions – pushing, blocking, ball placement, speed variation, simple footwork and quick reactions.
If I can use what I’m practicing regularly in my coaching sessions and develop it to a very high standard, then I’m sure I can make a success of it.
My biggest concern is that this playing style will be too passive. I may find it difficult to challenge the strongest players in my league. But I’ve had some success in practice matches over the past few weeks, so it’s definitely worth exploring.
If the “push, block, counter” playing style brings me success, then being a full-time coach has potential to make me a significantly better player.
We will have to wait and see!