How to approach (and win) matches against weaker opponents

Some players find it a real struggle to play against weaker opponents. I have seen it many times. A player will finish a match, shaking his head, wondering out aloud how he could have played so bad.

“I was rubbish”.

“I should have beaten that player easily”.

“I never play that bad in practice matches”.

Does this sound familiar? Do you struggle against players you really should beat? If so, read on, as I have some good advice to help you consistently beat weaker players…

Fear of losing

From my experience (I know, I’ve been there!), one of the common reasons for a poor performance against a weaker opponent is a fear of losing.

When you play a weaker opponent, you’re expected to win.

You know you should win. Your opponent knows you should win. Anyone watching knows you should win.

This expectation to win can actually add a lot of pressure and you may start asking yourself, ‘What if I mess up? What if the score is close and I crumble under the pressure? What if I actually lose?’.

And this is when the problems can begin. When you start worrying too much about whether you will win or lose, your game can really suffer.

Against a weaker player, you may decide to ‘play safe’. You desperately do not want to lose, so you decide not to take any risks. You play passively, keeping the ball on the table with soft shots, hoping the weaker player will make the mistake first.

You push when you would normally topspin.

You block weak balls, when you would normally counter-attack.

You prod at serves rather than being assertive.

You’ve made a calculation, whether consciously or unconsciously, that you can beat this weaker player by just keeping the ball on the table and eventually he will mess up. You don’t need to go for your shots.

But here’s the problem. If you play too passively, if you play down to the level of your opponent, you’re giving him a great opportunity to get into the match. He may start exploiting your passive play, attacking more and more. His confidence increases. Your confidence starts to disappear. Everything becomes very nervy.

And now the match is in balance. You may scrape a win. You may have a crushing defeat. Whatever the result, you finish the match feeling pretty rotten about how you played.

“I can’t believe I played that bad.”

How to overcome your fear of losing

So, how can you stop this from happening? How can play your best table tennis against weaker players, all the time?

The first thing to recognise is a fear of losing is entirely psychological. A poor performance against a weaker player is rarely a reflection on your table tennis ability. It’s all about what’s going on in your head.

So you need to change your mind-set. This is what you need to do:

1. Focus on the process of playing rather than winning or losing

In the lead up to a match, there is no point worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose. It’s entirely pointless. It won’t help you win a match. It will do the opposite. You’ll put more pressure on yourself and you’ll become more tense. This is not good.

Instead, focus on the process of playing. Put all your mental energy into how you’re going to play. Visualise your best strokes. Think about your service and 3rd / 5th ball attack routines. Think about how you’re going to return serves. Think about the times when you’ve played at your best. Get yourself into a positive mind-set.

During the match, don’t get pre-occupied with score. Just take each point as it comes. Focus on identifying and exploiting your opponent’s weakness. Concentrate on getting your strengths into play as often as possible. Show people how you can play.

2. Have confidence in your ‘A’ game

Playing safe is a flawed calculation. Most of the time playing safe will actually be the more risky option, as you invite your opponent to start attacking. And when you play safe for too long in a match, it’s not always easy to switch to a more assertive style of play.

Your ‘A’ game in most situations will be your best option. If your ‘A’ game can give stronger players trouble, just imagine what it will do to a weaker player. You should beat him easy.

Imagine the weaker player is actually a really strong player. Go for your shots. Take risks. Play your ‘A’ game, right from the first point.

Very occasionally, you may play your ‘A’ game and mess up big style. You know what? This is fine. This happens in sport. But over the course of a league season, your win ratio will be much higher if you keep using your ‘A’ game, rather than playing passively.

And the more you use your ‘A’ game, the more your confidence will increase. Eventually, going for your shots against weaker opponents won’t seem risky at all.

3. Make your goal to sleep well at night

I often find the best way to approach matches is by thinking about what will make me sleep well at night.

It’s not necessarily winning or losing.

I have won matches, but been unhappy with my performance and slept terrible. I have lost matches, but been happy with how I’ve played and slept without stirring.

What makes me sleep well is if I’m happy with how I performed. Did I play attacking table tennis? Was my footwork good? Did I return serves well? Did I maintain focus throughout the match? Did I play the way I know I can play?

If I can answer yes to these questions, I’m happy. And in all probability, if I have played at, or near, my best against a weaker opponent, then I will have beaten him quite comfortably.

Now I can definitely sleep well at night!

Final thought

Playing poorly against a weaker opponent is frustrating. I know a lot about this topic, because it used to happen to me all the time. It would drive me crazy. Against a strong player, I’d play great, free from the burden of expectation. Against a weaker player, I’d play a stinker.

It took me a long time to change my mind-set and I still have relapses from time to time. But changing my approach from worrying about winning or losing to focusing on the process of playing has helped massively.

Give it a go. I hope it helps you too.

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