How to deal with too much conflicting table tennis advice

Last week I received a panicked email from a player I coach. In her own words, she was “completely muddled with all the different pieces of advice from different people”. She was beginning to doubt if her fast, attacking topspin game was the right way to play.  

An experienced player had told her she should play slow and spinny. A coach said she should flat hit rather than spin the ball. Another coach gave her some tactical advice which was the opposite to the advice she had received from a completely different coach. How was she supposed to make sense of all this?

And this is a challenge every table tennis player faces – how do you process all the different advice you’re given?

During your table tennis playing days (and years), you will receive a lot of advice. Coaches will give you advice. Team-mates will give you advice. Opponents will give you advice. Table tennis writers (like myself) will give you advice. Sometimes advice will be consistent. Other times advice will be contradictory.

Which advice should you listen to? Which advice should you ignore?

Contradictory advice

Contradictory advice can be the hardest to process, as it can really disrupt your game. Over the years, I have been told to:

  • Play closer to the table / play further away from the table
  • Play more aggressively / play with more control
  • Serve short / serve long
  • Attack with spin / attack with flat hits
  • Receive mostly with the forehand / receive mostly with the backhand
  • Hold the bat higher up the handle / hold the bat lower down the handle
  • Play one wing attack / play two wing attack

If I took on all this advice, my game would be a complete mess! I wouldn’t know what I was doing.

But the interesting thing about the list above, is that all of the advice is potentially correct. You can have success playing closer to the table. You can have success playing further away from the table. You can have success playing aggressively. You can have success playing with more control. And so on.

This is because there are many different ways to play, and succeed, at table tennis. At the amateur level, you can pretty much choose any playing style you want, and still be very successful.  This is why advice can sometimes seem contradictory. What works for one player, doesn’t work for another. Some players have a strategy of slow and spinny attacks. Other players prefer faster, flatter attacks. Some players prefer to push a lot. Other players will topspin everything. There is no right or wrong way. You can achieve success with many different styles.

Understanding your own game

The key is to have a good understanding of your own game. What is your preferred playing style? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What are the key things you need to improve to become a better player?

If you can answer these questions, it becomes much easier to filter the useful advice which benefits your game from unhelpful advice which messes up your game.

Here’s a personal example…

I love to topspin. I win a lot of points with my forehand topspin. It is a big strength. But another coach told me I should flatten my attacks more. He gave a good justification as to why I should do this. And it’s a shot he plays well. But it didn’t make much sense for my game. I already have a strong forehand topspin attack, which wins me points. Why would I want to change this? I’d have to retrain my muscle memory to change the way I attack and there’s no guarantee it would be any better than what I was already doing. My response to this advice? I ignored it.

However, around the same time, another coach gave me some advice about how I could make my forehand topspin even faster and spinnier. Now this was much more relevant to my game. I love to topspin and here was some advice which could help me make my topspin even better. Yes, I had to make a couple of small technical adjustments, but this was minor compared to changing my stroke completely. The advice fitted in with my playing style and how I wanted to develop. My response to this advice? I accepted it and introduced changes to my game.

It was fairly easy for me to decide which advice to take on board, because I had a clear idea about my own game. I knew what my strengths and weaknesses were and what I needed to focus on to improve. Changing from a topspin game to a flat hitting game was simply not on my agenda!

Filtering advice

All coaches (myself definitely included) will have a bias about how we think table tennis should be played. This will often be based upon our own playing style and the success we have achieved playing a certain way.

But there are many different ways to play, and win, at table tennis. If the advice you’re given doesn’t make much sense for your playing style, don’t automatically accept it. The advice may make perfect sense for different style of play, but less so for your style of play. You need to filter the useful advice from the advice which can disrupt your game.

Filtering advice only really works if you understand your own game. If you haven’t already done so, you should make notes about your own game (actually write it down). Make notes on:

  • Your preferred playing style
  • Your strengths
  • Your weaknesses
  • 5-10 things you want to improve over the next year

This shouldn’t take long. But when you have this information, when you know the key things you need to work on right now to become a better player, you will find it much easier to filter all the advice you are given.

You won’t waste time practising things which will have minimal (or no) benefit to your game. Instead you can focus on the strokes / drills / tactics which will make the biggest benefit to your game.

Good luck!

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