How to win a deciding game

I used to have a terrible record in matches which went to a deciding game. In a best of 5 match, if the score was 2-2, I just knew I would lose the final game. And guess what? I would lose. Over and over again. My results were littered with 3-2 defeats. I was clearly competitive in matches, as I was winning games, but I just wasn’t able to finish off a match.

This had to change. I started to think about why I was losing a deciding game. What was my mental state in the deciding game? How did I lose points? What tactics did I use? Did I actually have any tactics? What tactics did my opponent use? Was I too nervous, too relaxed, too passive, too aggressive? Lots of questions.

Fast forward to the present. Over the past four league seasons, my success rate at winning a deciding game is a lot better. In fact, it’s fantastic! At one stage, I won 14 consecutive matches which went to a deciding game. That’s a big improvement.

So, how did I do it? How did I change from a player who always lost a deciding game to a player who mostly wins a deciding game?

Let’s start with why I was losing…

Why I kept losing in the deciding game

When I analysed why I was losing a deciding game, I noticed there were two types of deciding game.

a) A deciding game where my opponent gives away a lead, e.g. My opponent is winning 2-0 or 2-1, but I fight back to 2-2.

b) A deciding game where I give away a lead, e.g. I’m winning 2-0 or 2-1 and my opponent fights back to 2-2.

I realised I was losing the deciding game in different ways, depending on which type of deciding game it was.

In matches where I came from behind (scenario A), I eased off in the deciding game. I was just happy to be level in the match. I could have lost 3-0 or 3-1, but actually the score was 2-2. Well done me! This was like a mini-victory. I’ve done the hard work, now my brain and body can take a holiday. Bad mistake. When I mentally and physically eased off, my opponent was able to take advantage.

My playing style also changed. To get back into a match I would play attacking table tennis and take a few more risks. I had nothing to lose. And it worked! However, when the score got back to 2-2, the pressure was different. The match was in the balance. Either player could win. What would I do? Start playing passively. I didn’t want to give cheap points away, so I would stop attacking. Another big mistake. I stopped using the tactics which won me points. I didn’t want to be the player taking risks. I hoped I could win by my opponent making errors. It rarely worked out that way.

In matches where I gave away a lead (scenario B), my mental state was letting me down. This was particularly true if I had given away a 2-0 lead. If my opponent had won two games in a row, it was as though I had already given up. I knew I wasn’t going to win because they had all the momentum. Another mistake. My mind was already defeated before the deciding game took place. I was making it very easy for my opponent to win the deciding game.

My tactics (or lack of tactics) were also poor. To get back into the match, my opponent changed their tactics. They had to do something differently, otherwise they were going to lose. But I would never adjust to their tactical changes. I just kept playing in the same way which had lost me the previous one or two games. A huge mistake. The deciding game would be a formality. I’d lose by a big margin and scratch my head wondering how the match had gone so wrong.

How I started to win deciding games

By reflecting on why I was losing a deciding game, it became fairly obvious what I needed to change:

  • If my opponent has given away a lead, don’t ease off. Keep focused and keep applying pressure. If I got back into the match by playing attacking table tennis, keep on playing attacking table tennis.
  • If I give away a lead, don’t give up! The match isn’t over yet. A defeat isn’t inevitable. Adjust tactics. Try something different. Stay positive.

This was a great starting point. I was now much more competitive in a deciding game. I started to believe that I could win deciding games. I then added a few more elements to my deciding game strategy:

  • Start with my ‘A’ game. I play my best when I attack, so start the deciding game by attacking. My opponent may have eased off or become a bit passive, so there is a great opportunity to build an early lead.
  • Apply my strengths to their weaknesses. By the 5th game, I may have lost track of my original game plan. Or I may have got sucked into playing their style of game. Refocus and get back to basics. Target my opponent’s weaknesses. In the pressure of a deciding game a player’s weakness will be even more vulnerable.
  • Use serves which cause my opponent difficulty. By the deciding game, I should have a very good idea about which serves are effective. Keep using these serves. If my opponent hasn’t got used to these serves by the deciding game, they probably won’t get used to them at all.

A winning formula?

This approach to a deciding game has been very successful for me. Many of the scorelines in deciding games have been quite comfortable – 11-3, 11-4, 11-5. Is it a guaranteed way to win a deciding game? No. My opponent may approach the deciding game in the same way, so someone has to lose.

My 14 match unbeaten run came to an end in January this year, having missed two match-points. And, shock-horror, I lost another deciding game in March. But my record is so much better than it was. I no longer fear a deciding game. Quite the opposite. I relish a deciding game as I believe I have a strong chance of winning.

So if you have trouble winning deciding games, do what i did. Step one: try and understand why you keep losing the deciding game. It may be the same reasons why I kept losing. It might be something else entirely. When you have worked out WHY, you can start to fix the problem. Step two: come up with a plan on how to approach a deciding game. Again, borrow my tactics if you think they will work for you. Step three:win!

Good luck.

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