Here’s a very common issue. You play great in training. You hit the balls cleanly with high consistency. You’re relaxed. Your strokes are smooth. You move well. People comment on how well you are playing. You feel great!
But when you play a league match, it all goes wrong. You feel tight. Your legs feel heavy. Your strokes are jerky. You make errors. You just can’t seem to find the same fluency as you can when you’re training. You feel rotten.
How can this happen? How can you play great in training and terrible in league matches?
I have given this topic a lot of thought over the years. And I believe there is one thing you can do which can drastically change your match form.
So if you want to replicate your training form in league matches, then read on…
League matches are hard
The first thing to say is that league matches are hard. Your opponent is trying to make you play bad. You don’t get lots of nice balls, which fall into the right place at a manageable speed, like you do in training drills. Your opponent is trying to exploit your weaknesses, trying to get his or her strengths into play, trying to make life hard for you.
Match-play is completely random. Random spin, random speed, random placement. It’s actually very hard to play as well in league matches as you do in training. The rallies are often scrappy and disjointed, especially if playing styles don’t fit.
You also have to cope with added pressure. The training environment is usually quite relaxed. In league matches there is tension. You have to deal with nerves. You have the distraction of other people watching you.
In training, you normally play with the same faces each week. You get used to your training partner’s playing style. You know what to expect and can find a rhythm. In league matches you face less familiar, or completely unknown, opponents, which adds to the uncertainty and pressure.
How do you train?
These are some reasons why it is generally hard to replicate training form when playing league matches.
But it doesn’t explain why some people are comfortable playing league matches and others find it really difficult.
I have talked to many players about this, both those who excel when playing league matches and others who perform way below their potential. And there seems to be a common theme.
The players who find league matches hard, seem to train in a very specific way.
They do a disproportionate amount of regular drills, focusing mainly on drives or topspins. These are drills where the player knows where the ball is going to go and they have a set position to return the ball to.
A very basic example of this would be playing forehand drive to forehand drive. Or backhand drive to backhand drive.
Throughout my 15 years of playing table tennis so far, I have seen so many players spend a ridiculous amount of training time just playing forehand to forehand or backhand to backhand.
Regular drills can be more advanced than this and can include any combination of shots and movements, but the player always knows where the ball is going to go.
This method of training is great for developing technique and footwork. But it’s not real table tennis. It’s more like a dance routine. The ball goes there. I move here. Bat starts here. Bat finishes there. I put ball there. And repeat.
By placing too much focus on regular drills when training, players are not learning the intricacies of match-play.
Yes, they are probably getting very good at hitting nice forehand and backhand topspins, but here’s a list of things they are not developing…
- Service technique and strategy
- 3rd ball attack
- Returning serves
- Dealing with random placement
- Attacking backspin
- Watching your opponent
- Dealing with random changes of spin
- Match tactics
- Dealing with pressure
- Coping with and beating different playing styles
- Learning ways to win
And these are the things you need to be good at to actually do well (and feel comfortable) when playing league matches.
So when these players come to play league matches, all of the regular drills they have done – all this forehand to forehand and backhand to backhand – counts for very little. They just don’t get to play the same rallies which they do in training.
And that’s because match-play is completely random. You don’t get 10 nice topspin balls in a row to your forehand. It’s rare for the ball to be played in the same position two shots in a row.
Change the way you train
Does this sound like you? Please be very honest with yourself.
If yes, the most important thing you can do is change the way you train.
Make your training resemble match-play much more. This means doing more irregular drills, where you don’t know where the ball is going.
So instead of training backhand to backhand for 20 minutes, ask your training partner to put the ball anywhere on your side of the table and you keep returning to the backhand side. After 10 minutes, switch around. By doing this exercise you are learning to react to balls in a random pattern, which develops the skills you need to cope with random match-play. This is just one option. There are hundreds of other irregular drills you can do.
Also make sure you do serve and receive exercises. This is essential. Every single point in table tennis starts with a serve and receive. If you don’t practise, do not be surprised if you find it difficult to serve and receive well when playing league matches.
And make time to actually play matches when training. Be happy to play against different standards and different playing styles. Do not worry about winning or losing. Just use these matches as learning and development opportunities. There is nothing quite like playing matches to get really good at playing matches!
Regular drills are still useful for developing technique and footwork. But you need to find a balance. If you have two hours training time per week and spend most of it doing forehand to forehand or backhand to backhand, then you have wasted your time. You shouldn’t be surprised that your match-play doesn’t improve.
Sure, do a bit of regular drilling, but focus more time on the skills you need for matches, such as serve and 3rd ball, receive and 4th ball, random rallying and match-play.
Then when you go to play league matches, it’s not such a big difference. You’ll just be replicating what you do in training. And you will find it much easier to get closer to your training form when competing.