The dreaded first league season

It’s that time of year again. Halloween? No. Build up to Christmas? No. Table tennis winter league season? YES!

All over the UK, thousands of players are pushing, chopping, toppspinning and smashing in sports halls, community centres or any room large enough to fit a table tennis table in it.

There are regulars playing for the umpteenth season, rekindling old rivalries and trying to achieve their highest ever win percentage.

But there are also lots of people playing their first ever league season, who are struggling to win a single set, let alone an entire match.

Here’s a typical experience from Andy Couchman, who is playing in his first league season (Andy is aiming to go from beginner to UK ranking player 3 years):

The opposition were three players, who were in their seventies. My mind was telling me I easily win these three matches. My good intentions of moving well, using topspin, correct posture etc etc all went out of the window as soon as the first shot was made.

As my first opponent scored points, I wondered how I could allow him to win them, and this process compounded itself. It was the same for all three matches; I lost 3:0, 3:1 and 3:0. I was drawn into their game. The trouble is they were better at their particular game than I was!

To say I’m rather fed-up at the moment is a major understatement!

Andy’s experience is fairly common. My first league season 10 years ago was very similar. I could already play a little bit, so didn’t consider myself a complete beginner. I could push, drive and had a couple of decent serves, so I thought I’d probably do ok.

But when my first match arrived, I was terrified! I felt so nervous, wanting to be anywhere other than the table tennis court. My heart rate was through the roof, mouth as dry as a desert and my feet felt like they were weighed down by two huge bricks. Invetiably, I lost.

And the losses kept coming. I was playing the bottom division of the London league and I only managed to win a handful of matches throughout the entire season. I was losing to players whose technique seemed terrible to me – they were barely capable of doing a rally of two of three shots in the warm-up. But when the match started they were able to produce some weird, awkward shots and I would make mistake after mistake after mistake. They didn’t need to play a rally of three shots as I’d already lost the point by then. It was a humbling experience and a remember feeling a sense of embarrassment about how many matches I was losing.

Almost all players I know have started their competitive experience this way. It seems to be a table tennis rite of passage. In your first league season, you will lose plenty of matches. It takes time to get used to competing. It takes time to work out how to play all the weird and wonderful styles. In takes time to work out what your strengths and weaknesses are. It takes time to develop your technique. It takes time to develop your own tactics. It takes time to apply new skills in a match situation. You get the picture, it takes time!

So if you’re having a tough time during your first season, don’t get too despondent. When you watch advanced players in your club, you may look on in envy and think ‘I wish I could play like them’. But just remind yourself they are only good players because they have many years of playing experience. When they first started playing competitively, they lost lots of matches too.

How to survive your first season

I’m coaching a few players who are playing in their first league season and here’s what I tell them. See if you can spot the recurring theme (it’s fairly obvious):

Don’t worry about how many matches you win. No one particularly cares, apart from you. If you get a few wins – great. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter. Use your first season to get used to playing competitive matches and learning how to play.

Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets, e.g. I want to win 75% of my matches. You don’t need this pressure. In most cases you will be setting yourself up to fail. Just focus on the process of playing – service, receive, footwork, technique, tactics – and learn from each match you play.

Get advice from coaches and advanced players. After each match you’ll probably have loads of questions running through your head. How did my opponent do X, Y, Z? Why couldn’t I do this, that and the other? What should I do when my opponent plays this shot or that shot? Speak to a coach or more experienced players in your club. They will have many years experience of playing competitively and will have answers. Extract knowledge from their brains!

Identify your strengths and weaknesses. How are you winning points? How are you losing points? Are there any common themes in your matches (e.g. when an opponent pushes to my forehand I often hit the ball into the net.)? When you have learnt what you do well and what you don’t do well, it is much easier to make improvements to weak areas and make your strengths even stronger.

I’m sure you have worked out the common theme: LEARN. Results in your first season are really not important, but learning is. If you learn from your losses (and wins), you will be able to improve much quicker.

When the dreaded first league season is over, you need to practice, practice, practice. Some players make the mistake of stopping when the league season is over and only starting again when the next season begins. And guess what happens? They don’t improve very much.

Use the time between seasons to get in as much practice as possible. And make sure your practice has a purpose. Work on the strengths and weaknesses you identified during your first league season and play plenty of practice matches too (or drills which simulate match situations).

If you learn from your matches during your first season and practice loads when the season is over, you will do better in your second season. Keep repeating this process and each season you will get better and better. Before you know it, you may well be the advanced player in the club who other beginners look up to in envy.

So embrace your first season – it’s not so dreaded after all. Consider it the first step in a long journey to becoming a great table tennis player!

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