Written by Harrie Austin-Jones.
I keep missing the ball. I will be in full flow, effortlessly whipping a forehand topspin across the table, looking like Ma Long on a compilation video, and then, suddenly, the ball disappears. Worse still, it reappears behind me, often bouncing off the walls and causing me to run after it sheepishly while whoever I'm playing looks on with bemusement. Talk about hero to zero!
Why do I miss?
I was at a coaching session this week and I was being roundly praised for my improvement over the past four weeks (since the last session). Yet, although everything was looking better and feeling more solid, the instant I increased the speed I started to miss the ball. Effectively, it felt like there was a hole in my bat.
It's happened countless times before. Go to any table tennis club in the world and you will see people miss shots that they are perfectly placed to hit. It just looks like they put their bat in the wrong place. To them it feels like they had it in the right place but the ball went straight through the bat.
I spoke to the guy I was doing the drill with, who is a more experienced player, and he denoted my increase in speed as being the key factor. Effectively, I am swinging faster to give the ball more pace and speed but I am not compensating for the fact it is going to come back quicker.
At first, I thought of it as a hitting problem. I am hitting the ball with speed and I need to keep that speed consistent. However, it is actually a recovery problem. Every single shot you make should have a recovery built in. The faster you hit the ball the quicker that recovery has to be, as you need to be connecting with the ball at the same point every single time.
It is not easy. You need to be anticipating both the speed and direction of the ball, as well as positioning your own body correctly for the next shot. The quicker it is, the harder it is to do. That is why we can all look like a pro table tennis player in slow motion but any quicker and we look like we can't see the ball.
Drills to help you to adapt
I have a theory that, for most players, speed change is important to get into drills. Often people do drills at one speed. They go either slow, medium or fast and stick to this. However, there is an argument that drills should also incorporate a pyramid style. They may start off slow, move up towards fast, and back down towards slow again. Or even start fast, go to slow, and return to fast again.
This means, not only does your recovery have to adapt but, you will get used to a more realistic environment whereby a match isn't always slow or fast. A match will ebb and flow and a good player will be able to handle any style.
This theory also covers the opposite problem. Up until now, I have talked about timing as a "need to do more with less time". However, the most embarrassing situations happen when we have all the time in the world...
- The smashes we put into the net.
- The smashes where we miss the ball entirely.
- The slow forehands we loop into the net.
Or any one of the thousand other things we do when we have too much time to think.
It sucks when we miss an easy shot because we have too much time. We become indecisive. It is almost like we are presented with a banquet of our favourite foods and instead of picking the 99 foods we love we end up going for the plain chicken breast in front of us.
And it doesn't just happen on smashes I have done it on every single shot there is. Time suddenly becomes drawn out (please see Einstein's Theory of Relativity for more information), I swipe for the ball and it's gone. The issue is most prevalent when I feel tension that is why you need drills and practice that replicates this experience.
No matter how many drills you complete, nothing will perfectly replicate how bad you are when you are nervous and how good you are when you are relaxed. Relaxation is the thread that runs through everything you do in table tennis. Novice players talk of reaction. The best players don't react because they have already anticipated the next shot happening, as well as its trajectory, spin and speed.
I suffer from a lack of relaxation. However, I know that in match situations the other person is more nervous than I am, and that gives me some solace.
If you focus on 'being relaxed' that will make you more tense. The best thing I have found to deal with tension is to try to reduce expectations and keep to a rigid routine. I also find that if I am playing a match I will warm up for as long as possible. The more I hit the ball and get used to what I need to do the less likely I am to crumble in a game and miss it.
Ben and the Left-Handed Monster
Now, for the past three or four weeks Ben and I have been playing left-handed games (i.e. games on Ben's wrong hand) during our training sessions. During the 15 or so games we have played I've only won one or two. It has been shocking.
Ben continues to believe I am not able to beat him on his left-hand because I am just not quite at the level yet. I disagree. I believe I probably am. The problem is, I cannot prove it. I really, really want to prove it. In fact, I want to win against Ben on his left-hand more than any other game I have ever played in table tennis; to prove the point that I can win.
I have attached a lot of meaning to it. I then, due to the weekly intervals of our sessions, get time to brood about it. By the time we roll around to Wednesday I am in such a state that I can barely play anymore.
Take this week for example. I missed four or five serves against him. I have missed maybe one or two serves during the rest of the month. Balls from Ben's left-hand, with a small amount of spin, would cause me to miss completely. Likewise, a slow ball that gave me too much time would also cause me to miss.
What's funny is all of this meaning has been attached to the game and the concept surrounding it. For example, I am worried about if I win or what will happen if I lose. I haven't even thought about what Ben is doing or what the ball is doing. I am too busy thinking about the consequences of missing rather than the fact I actually need to hit the ball.
It isn't easy learning timing. It comes from three areas in table tennis: relaxation, focus and adaptability. If you are chilled out, watching the ball, and can adapt to the speed it is played at, you're halfway there. If not, you need to go back and work on some drills, with a little variation to embed the skills.
In regards to relaxation and focus, make sure you focus on the right things and find a process to help you relax. I am still working on mine. So, for now, maybe that left-handed monster is safe...