Why some players improve faster than others

Over the past 10 years, I have done a lot of coaching. I have worked with players of all ages (youngest 5, oldest 83). I have coached beginner players, intermediate players and advanced players. I have coached pushers, blockers, choppers, hitters, topspin attackers. I have coached players who live locally and players who travel from across the UK (and the world!).

Some of these players have improved a lot. Others have only improved a little bit. Ideally I would like every player to make massive improvement, but there is a limit to what any individual coach can do. How much improvement is made is ultimately down to the player.

But there is a definite pattern. There are certain things some players do, which allow them to make a big improvement in a short period of time. This is what they do, and you should do too…

Combine some coaching with lots of practice

Working with a coach can really help you develop your game. But you should combine your coaching with a lot of independent practice. Ideally for every hour of coaching you have, you should match it with at least four hours of practice. 

I have some players who do not practise between coaching sessions. They still make progress, but at a much slower pace. 

Other players practise a lot in between coaching sessions and their improvement is much quicker. They put in more hours at the table. They do more repetitions of the skill they are learning. They develop their skills playing against a wider range of players (not just the coach). 

Table tennis is an incredibly fast game. We don’t have a lot of thinking time. All skills need to be developed until they become automatic. You can only achieve this by playing a lot. A coach can point you in the right direction. But the player needs to do the hard work and endless repetitions. 

Use different training methods – regular, irregular, match-play

Players who improve a lot use three main training methods. They use regular exercises, where they know where the ball is going, i.e. 2 x forehands, 2 x backhands. They use these exercises to groove their technique and make it super consistent.

They also use irregular exercises, where they don’t know where the ball is going, i.e. 1 or 2 balls to the forehand, 1 or 2 balls to the backhand. They use these to develop their reading skills and reactions.

And they also use match-play exercises. This could be any exercise based around serve and receive or just straight forward matches. They use these exercises to develop tactical thinking and point winning strategies.

In addition to using different training methods, they also train with a purpose in mind. They are trying to develop a skill which they can use to win points. 

Players who only use one type of training method, progress at a slow rate. If you only do regular exercises, you will most likely develop great looking strokes, but your reading skills and match-play will be very underdeveloped. If you only do match-play exercises, you will get good at competing, but you will be limited by under-developed technique. 

Try to use all three training methods to develop a much stronger all-round game.

Think for yourself

A coach can advise you. A coach can guide you. A coach can explain the pros and cons of different approaches. But the coach is not you. You need to make the ultimate decisions about your game – the serves you use, your approach to returning serves, your playing style, your tactics, your development goals.

All coaches have biases based upon their own playing experience. But what works for the coach may or may not work for you. Do not automatically accept all suggestions from a coach. 

The players who improve the most, think for themselves. They are open to suggestions. They are prepared to try out different things. But they are also capable of discarding advice which doesn’t seem to work for their game.

If you have a clear understanding of your own preferred playing style, your strengths and limitations, it becomes much easier to adopt the good advice you receive and filter out the advice which is unhelpful.

You are the player at the table trying to win points. So you need to be in charge. 

Play lots of competitive matches

When you are focused on improving your skills, it can be tempting to avoid competitive matches. You just want to get really good at the skill first and then maybe play some league matches or tournaments.

I don’t think this works. When you have a mindset of avoiding competitive matches, you will always find a new excuse not to compete. You stay in your safe zone. You never really put your skills to the test – to find out what works and what doesn’t work. Your progress will be slower.

Do no opposite. Throw yourself into competitive environments. Play league matches. Play tournaments. Get used to competing and applying your skills in pressure situations. The more you do it, the easier it gets. You gain a much better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. This then feeds back into your coaching and training and your skills develop much quicker.

Ideally you should compete at a level which is appropriate for your playing standard. If the level is too high or too low, you may not learn that much. You want the level to be challenging, where the outcome is uncertain. You may win or lose. If you play well, you probably win. If you play below standard, you probably lose. This is where the big improvements can take place. 

Keep it simple

There’s no mystical ‘secret’ I have shared here. There’s no special technique which is guaranteed to achieve quick success and send a player from beginner player to international star in six months. Anyone who is selling you this promise is talking nonsense.

The advice I have given – based on my own observations – is really quite mundane…

  • Get some coaching
  • Practise a lot
  • Train with a purpose
  • Develop your own game
  • Play lots of competitive matches

If you do this, you will improve a lot, in a shorter period of time. It does require hard work, and dedication. But so does anything which you want to get really good at. 

Getting some coaching is a useful first step, but most of the activities listed here do not require a coach. It just needs you, your brain, your bat, a table and a lot of repetition.

If you have the time available and the enthusiasm to improve, you will reach a higher standard than you may think is possible. Believe in yourself and go smash some balls! 

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