What advice should you give to team-mates during matches?

If you play league table tennis, there is an expectation that you will give advice to a team-mate during a match. For a brief period of time, you have been elevated to the role of ‘coach’. Your team-mate looks to you for some words of wisdom, which will turn around his fortunes and propel him to victory. It’s a big responsibility.

What advice should you give? You have received no training for this vital role. There are no qualifications to be gained. There is no official textbook to guide you. You just wing it. You say a few things which you hope will help your team-mate. Occasionally you may say something which makes a difference. Most of the time your words have no impact whatsoever. Other times your advice backfires and the player does much worse.

Giving useful advice to a team-mate during a match is a difficult skill to master. I don’t profess to be an expert in this area, but I have been doing it long enough to have a decent idea about what definitely doesn’t work and what type of advice is more likely to lead to an improved outcome for the player.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work. This is the type of advice you shouldn’t give to a team-mate during a match. Here’s three common scenarios …

1. Don’t focus on technique

SCENARIO: Your team-mate has just lost the first game 11-4. You call him over and tell him that his technique is all wrong. He should be looping like this. Pushing like that. Elbow position here. Bat finishing position there. Hit the shot like Ma Long!

This type of advice is usually completely counter-productive. It usually takes a long time –  months or years – for a player to make significant technique changes to his game. Telling a player what is wrong with his technique may seem a helpful thing to do, but there is almost no chance a player will be able to implement the technique change in the middle of a match. And worse still, you have just told the player that his technique is wrong. This makes him more conscious of his strokes. This leads to overthinking and interference with his subconscious motor-skills, which in turn increases tension and a further deterioration in his technique.

2. Don’t recommend an unrealistic playing style

SCENARIO: Your team-mate likes to push and block. She is more of a safety player and wins points from her opponent’s errors. She doesn’t have great confidence in her attacking game. The score is 1-1. You call her over and tell her to win this match she needs to be much more attacking. Loop every ball. No more pushing. Attack, attack, attack.

This type of advice is also very unhelpful. Telling a player, mid-match, to play in a style which she is very uncomfortable with usually ends in a much worse outcome. Whilst it may seem obvious to you – if she just attacks more, she will win this match – it may not be possible for the player to use this approach. If she doesn’t have the confidence to attack every ball – or the technical skills – she will just make lots of errors and get stressed and frustrated. 

3. Don’t give too many instructions

SCENARIO: You’re a good team-mate. You have been watching the match very closely. You have identified numerous areas where your team-mate could improve. He loses the first game narrowly, 11-9. You call him over. You reel off a number of observations. Do this. Do that. When he serves, aim there. When you serve, aim here. When he plays this shot, spin there, then smash there. This area is weak, target there. Stay low. Move fast. Oh and one more thing…

Giving too much feedback is also not very helpful. Your team-mate is in the middle of a match. He probably has a few thoughts of his own. By overloading him with your own instructions you are more likely to overwhelm his mind. There is only so much information a brain can absorb and focus on at once. If your team-mate has too many thoughts going through his head, he is more likely to freeze and forget what he was supposed to be doing in the first place.

So what advice should you give instead? There is no magic answer here, but here are four suggestions from my own experience, which are more likely to lead to a better outcome. 

1. Suggest one specific tactic

SCENARIO: Your team-mate likes to push. She keeps pushing to her opponent’s forehand, but her opponent has a decent forehand loop and is able to attack and win the point. However, you notice that her opponent never attacks on the backhand side. You call over your team-mate. You suggest one simple tactic. Keep pushing to the backhand. This is the weaker side. Your opponent won’t be able to attack. You can control the rally and force errors.

In this scenario, you have suggested one easy-to-implement tactic. It is appropriate for your team-mate’s playing style. It should be easy to do – just changing the placement of the push. And there is only one thing your team-mate has to focus on. It’s clear. It’s simple. It’s positive. And most importantly, it’s achievable. It may work. It may not. But if you have read the game correctly, there is a good chance this advice will result in a better outcome for your team-mate. 

2. Focus on a serve

SCENARIO: Your team-mate has a range of serves. You notice a particular serve is causing problems, but your team-mate is not using it very often. Between games, you call him over. You suggest he uses this challenging serve more frequently. You tell him it’s a really good serve and his opponent is struggling to deal with it.

Service in amateur table tennis is hugely important. So many points can be won with good quality serves. And it’s the only time when a player has complete control over the ball, and a little thinking time. So any feedback you give about serves is likely to have a positive impact. In the scenario above, you have given a very simple suggestion – use this serve more often. You have also given some positive feedback, i.e. this serve is very strong and your opponent can’t handle it. Your team-mate is very likely to follow your advice, as he has been given a confidence boost and it is easy to do. Just use a particular serve more often. If it works, he is going to win some extra points.

3. Install some belief

SCENARIO: Your team-mate has started very cautiously. She doesn’t seem to be playing with her usual energetic flow. Her shots are stiff. Her legs aren’t moving. She seems afraid, scared she will lose. She plays well below her best standard and loses the first game 11-6. You call her over. You tell her to forget that game. You remind her what a good player she is. You tell her about her strengths. You remind her of that time she beat that really good player and how she did it. You give her some positive re-enforcement and tell her to show everyone how well she can play. 

Sometimes a little pep talk does the trick. In this scenario it is tempting to focus on the negatives – you’re not doing this – you’re not doing that – but does this player really need more negative thoughts swirling around her head? She is already playing way below her best. To snap her out of her malaise, remind her of what she is good at. Get her to visualise her best shots. Get her to remember another good performance. Blow away the nerves and get the flow back. Again, it may not work, but if she can play closer to her best form, then she will win more points and feel much better about her performance.

4. Say nothing at all

SCENARIO: Your team-mate loses the first game, but wins the second game. Even though his performance is improving, you notice a couple of things he could do better. But he doesn’t seem to want any feedback. His body language is good. He seems focused on the task at hand. He is in the ascendancy. In this situation sometimes it is best to say nothing at all.

Some players like to receive feedback between games. Others don’t. If your team-mate is one of those players who prefers not to hear your words of wisdom and the game is going OK, then don’t say anything. Just give a thumbs up to let him know that he’s doing well. A simple gesture like this communicates your support, but also acknowledges that your team-mate has got this under control. You believe in him. Job done. 

None of this is an exact science. And even if you follow my advice, your team-mate may still end up losing a match. But the purpose of giving advice is to help your team-mate play closer to her best and win a few extra points. If you can do that, then you’ve done a great job in helping your team-mate. 

Occasionally you can have spectacular results. I remember one match when my team-mate lost the first game 11-5. All the points he lost were from his own attacking errors. His opponent didn’t have to do anything. He just put the ball on the table and my team-mate would smash the ball in the net or off the end of the table. But I knew his opponent wasn’t that consistent either. So between games I told him to be a little more patient. Push one or two balls and give his opponent the opportunity to mess up first. My team-mate had a good pushing game, so I knew this was achievable for him. A simple instruction – be patient, push a little more and wait for easy balls to attack. The result? He won the next game 11-0!

I wish this would happen all the time. But it rarely works out this way. Giving some advice to a team-mate is a small part of the game. Ultimately it is up to the player to work out a way of winning. All you can do is point the player in the right direction or give the player a confidence boost.

As I said before, I don’t claim to be an expert in this area. I’ve just done a lot of trial and error over the years and have developed an instinct for what tends to work better most of the time. 

How about you? What advice do you give to team-mates during matches? Does it work? And what type of advice do you like to be given? Leave a comment below.

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