Here’s a common scenario in amateur table tennis.
You’re about to start a match. This could be a league match or a tournament match.
You perform the customary warm-up ritual with your opponent – a minute hitting forehand to forehand and another minute hitting backhand to backhand.
During this warm-up your opponent’s forehand looks solid. He keeps the rally going for a long time and he plays with confidence. But when playing backhand to backhand, he makes several mistakes. The timing of the shot is off. The swing is inconsistent. He seems tense. The backhand appears to be an obvious weakness.
What should we do with this observation?
Option 1 – Do nothing
A player with low tactical awareness may not even notice his opponent has a weak backhand. During the match he gives his opponent plenty of opportunities to use his strong forehand and swiftly succumbs to a 3-0 defeat.
Option 2 – Exploit the weakness sometimes
A player with reasonable tactical awareness will have noticed his opponent has a weak backhand. During the match he varies his ball placement. He does give his opponent chances to use his stronger forehand. But at key points in the match, if the score is 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, he will target the weaker backhand to win those crucial points. He wins the match, but makes hard work of it.
Option 3 – Hammer the obvious weakness
A player with strong tactical awareness will, of course, notice his opponent has a weak backhand. This is something he will have been actively observing during the pre-match warm-up. During the match, he ruthlessly exploits this weakness. He plays 90% of his shots into his opponent’s backhand corner. His opponent messes up again and again and again. He starts to get despondent because he can’t use his stronger forehand and starts wildly swinging at the ball in frustration. The player with strong tactical awareness easily wins the match 3-0.
Which approach is best?
What would you do in this scenario? The answer seems pretty obvious, given the outcomes I have outlined above. But maybe it is a little more nuanced.
A player with low tactical awareness may not have noticed his opponent has a weak backhand, but could still win this match, by using his usual tried and tested tactics (whatever they may be). But if he plays to his opponents strengths too much, then the match is going to be very tough and I suspect he will lose more often than win.
A player with reasonable tactical awareness has a clear winning strategy. He is willing to play a more varied game to identify other weaknesses. But he knows if the match becomes close, he always has a tactic to use which has a very high chance of winning him those crucial points (target the weak backhand). The potential danger is that if the score gets to 8-8 or 9-9, and the tactic doesn’t work or he misses his own shot, he is in very real danger of losing the game.
A player with strong tactical awareness doesn’t want to give his opponent a chance. He has identified the weakness and will exploit it again and again and again. He wants to win the match with a big point margin and deny his opponent any opportunity to use his stronger shots. Is there a downside? Yes, potentially. If he plays 90% of balls to his opponent’s backhand, there is a chance his opponent will start to adapt. Maybe his backhand will start working. Or maybe he will start stepping around and hit forehands from the backhand side.
So we return to the question, which option is best?
My personal preference is option 3 – hammer the obvious weakness. If I notice a player is a bit iffy on the backhand side, I will play a lot of balls into that area. This doesn’t mean I will play to exactly the same spot every time. I will vary the placement within the backhand half of the table. I will serve to the backhand. I will return serves to the player’s backhand. I will try to engage the player in backhand to backhand rallies. I will play to the forehand occasionally, to keep the player guessing, but then I’ll go straight back to the backhand!
I have won so many matches with this approach over the years. Maybe it seems a bit one-dimensional, but it works. If I can apply my strengths to my opponent’s weakness, then I will win the match.
With this approach, I will very often race to a 2-0 lead. Sometimes an opponent does adapt to my simple tactic. His backhand does improve or he finds a way of changing the direction of play. But as I have a 2-0 lead I have plenty of time to adjust to this change and implement a new tactic. I’m still in a strong position to win the match.
Option 2 – exploit the weakness sometimes – is a perfectly valid approach too. Many players prefer this. They want to vary the play and try different ways of winning points, but know they can always target the obvious weakness when they need to.
Option 1 – do nothing – is a poor choice. You will end up losing to players who you could easily beat, if you just used one simple tactic.
Develop your tactical thinking
I am a big fan of using option 3 – hammer the obvious weakness. But I am happy to be challenged on this. If you think I’m wrong, please let me know in the comments section!
But whatever your approach, I do encourage you to develop your tactical thinking. Tactics are such a major aspect of table tennis. Players with strong tactical awareness tend to win many more matches and progress to a higher level.
If this is a subject you are interested in – and you like to read books – these are three which I strongly recommend…
Table Tennis for Thinkers by Larry Hodges
This is probably my favourite ever table tennis book. I have read it three times already! The book contains so much invaluable advice about table tennis tactics, which you can’t find in any other book. There are 20+ chapters focusing on tactics against different styles, grips, and rubbers, as well loads of tips on tactical and strategic thinking. This book changed the way I thought about playing table tennis. I highly recommend.
SPIN: Tips and tactics to win at table tennis by Tom Lodziak
This is my book (a bit of shameful self-promotion!). I share tips on training, service, returning serves, winning points, tactics, playing matches and continual improvement. These are tips which work at amateur level. Tips which are achievable. Tips which will make a difference, even if you only play one hour per week. It’s a cracking read, honest!
Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert
This is actually a tennis book, but so much of what is written can be applied to table tennis. It’s all about how to make the most of whatever talents you have (your strengths) and applying them to your opponent’s weaknesses. I’ve read this a couple of times and found it quite inspirational.