My experience of playing in the top division

My league season has finished. Time for a sigh of relief. Don’t get me wrong, I get a massive buzz from playing competitive table tennis (when I win), but it can also be a stressful experience. All of the pre-match nerves, worrying about win percentages and trying to get in ‘the zone’ – it can be mentally draining – and this is before a match even begins.

This year was particularly tough, as it was my first year playing in the top division in Cambridge. The standard in Division 1 is much higher than Division 2. Looking at the statistics of other players who moved up through the divisions, most got between 10-30% in their first season in Division 1. So I knew it was going to be tough.

I set myself a target to win 30% of my matches. Although during pre-season practice, when I started doubting my abilities, I would have settled for just one win. It didn’t matter if I lost the rest. Just as long as I won one match, thus avoiding the dreaded 0% win percentage!

In this blog post, I share my experience of playing in the top division and reveal whether I managed to win a match. I also give some advice on how you need to develop your game if you want to play in the top division of your local league.

My season

Our main team goal for the season was not to get relegated. We didn’t want to be one of those teams which yo-yo between Division 1 and Division 2. Promoted one year, relegated the next. We wanted to stay up and compete against the best players in Cambridge. This meant we had to finish a minimum of 3rd from bottom in a 12 team league. We were ready for a relegation battle from the very start.

Our season turned out very different. We actually finished in 2nd place. This was way above expectations. How the heck did this happen? I wish I could say it was because I was brilliant and destroyed all my opponents – but the truth lies elsewhere. The main reason for our success was our new player, James Ward. He’s a former top 10 junior and currently ranked in the top 100 in the country. He played 51 matches and won 50. That’s a big help!

How about me? Did I manage to win a match? Drum roll please …….. YES I DID! I actually finished with a 48% win percentage which was well above the 30% target I set myself.

Most of my wins came against players at my level or below. I wasn’t able to get wins against the strongest players in the division. In most of these matches I felt competitive. And if I played my absolute best, I was even able to get on top. But I wasn’t able to maintain my top form throughout an entire match. The top players were more consistent, more attacking and more experienced. They were simply better than me.

If someone had told me before the season that I’d finish on 48%, I would have been ecstatic. But I still feel a little disappointed. For most of the season we had an outside chance of winning the league. If I had won more, we could have been champions. But I can’t be too hard on myself. For my first season in Division 1, I’m pretty happy with how I did.

Difference between top division and lower divisions

So what are the differences between Division 1 and the lower divisions? In the lower divisions you get a lot of backspin rallies. Players push and push and push and then push some more, waiting and hoping their opponent will make a mistake. The game is slower. Players are more cautious. You have more time to choose the right ball to attack.

This completely changes in the top division. There is far less pushing and a lot more topspinning. The rallies are much faster. Players are far more attacking. You can’t stand around waiting for the easy ball to attack – as there are far less easy balls. You have to play strong attacks from difficult balls. Not once or twice, but consistently throughout the match.

In lower divisions, I was able to get away with playing passively. I could keep the ball on the table and most of the time win the point. When I needed to attack a bit more, I could do. I could win either way.

In Division 1 it was a different story. Playing too passively didn’t work well at all! This is a bad habit of mine. I can easily slip into ‘passive’ mode. I think this is a combination of (1) how I played in my early years (the habit is quite deeply ingrained) and (2) all the hours of coaching I do where I feed the other player with balls they can attack.

If I slipped too much into my passive mode during Division 1 matches, I would generally struggle. I would lose a few points very quickly, without troubling my opponent at all.

It would often take a word in the ear from a teammate to get me focused again. They would tell me to attack more. So that’s what I did. And guess what? I’d do much better!

To have any chance of competing in the top division, you need to have consistent attacking shots. You have to give your opponents something to worry about, something to fear. If you play too safe, you let the other player get into an attacking rhythm and then it’s generally game over.

Learning from James

It was a great having James Ward on our team. Obviously all of his victories helped us achieve 2nd place, but more importantly I was able to learn from him.

Basically, James in a topspin machine. He hardly ever pushes the ball. Everything is spin, spin, spin. This style of play means he is always on the offensive. He makes playing table tennis look very easy.

I would battle it against a lower ranked played, trying my hardest and scraping a 3-2 victory. James would play the same player and win 3-0, without breaking a sweat. It was great to watch and learn from, even if it did make me feel entirely inadequate!

James has a fantastically consistent backhand topspin attack. It’s quite a short stroke, but he’s really able to load it up with plenty of speed and spin and it’s just so consistent. He doesn’t miss that many. Over the summer, I’ll try and do a video tutorial for my Youtube channel featuring James’ backhand, so you can learn from it too.

Priorities for next season

So there you have it. We didn’t get relegated. We finished 2nd. I didn’t lose all my matches. I finished with a 48% win percentage. I finally feel like a Division 1 player. But I want to improve. I want to get to 60-70% (and above). This might not be next season or the season after, but I’ll get there.

Now the season is over, I can relax a bit more, enjoy my practice sessions and work on improving my game. Over the summer, I’m going to be focusing on:

  • Getting more spin on my serves
  • Improving the consistency of my 3rd ball attacks
  • Returning serves with topspin
  • Playing more backhand topspins in match-play
  • Counterlooping with my forehand, rather than blocking

As you can see, I have a big focus on improving my topspin game. This will help me win more matches in Division 1 next season. Let the training begin!

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