(By Larry Hodges)
Do you have weaknesses in your game, ones that often cost you a match? Of course you do! Everyone does, since weaknesses are relative to your level, and so the weakest parts of your game are the weaknesses in your game. (If you improve a weakness to the point where it is no longer a weakness – and thereby improve – than some other part of your game becomes your weakness, relative to your new level.) So, how do you fix these weaknesses? There are three steps.
First, you must identify the weaknesses in your game. You might already know what they are. I’ll start – the biggest weaknesses in my game were a tendency to be too soft with my backhand in rallies, difficulty in covering my wide backhand, and I struggled with spinny loops to my backhand. (Hmmm, there’s a pattern here.) So what about you? There’s an easy way to figure out what the holes in your game are – ask your regular playing partners! Table tennis is a collaborative effort and playing partners should constantly be giving feedback to each other.
Second, you must fix the weaknesses. How do you do this? Coaching and practice. When I say “coaching,” that doesn’t always mean hiring a coach, though that’s the first thought. You can also ask experienced players for help, or self-coach by watching how others do it. And then, you practice it until it is no longer a weakness in your game (or in some cases, not such a glaring weakness). To use my own example, once I realized I had difficulty in covering my wide backhand, I figured out why – it was because I did so many drills that went to my backhand corner that I’d literally trained my feet to stop once I reached that corner, and so struggled with anything that went wider. By the time I started addressing that problem, I was already more of a coach and was no longer training seriously, and so I never really fixed the problem. But the solution would have been to have practice partners go as wide as possible to my backhand in drills, forcing me out of the comfort zone I’d fallen into.
Third, you should learn how to hide the weaknesses in your game. This is a tricky option, since by hiding it, you might not develop it. And yet, no matter what your level is, and no matter how many times you fix a weakness until it is no longer a weakness, there will always be weaknesses in your game, relative to your level. At some point, if you are looking to win big matches, you have to tactically play to win now so as to win those big matches, which means covering up for whatever weaknesses you have at that time. Which means you need to get in the habit of covering for those weaknesses – which means you need to find a balance.
That might mean playing a little different in many practice matches, where you try to fix the weaknesses, but in more serious matches (tournaments and leagues), and in some practice matches, you find ways to cover for those weaknesses. For example, because I always had trouble with spinny loops to my backhand, my solution was simple – I got into the habit of flipping or pushing short against nearly all short serves. That way I didn’t have to push long and face a spinny opening loop, since loops against backspin (i.e. a long push) are spinnier than those against topspin. (When I did face spinny loops to my backhand, I’d often cover up the backhand weakness by trying to step around and smash or counterloop with my forehand every chance I could – both because my forehand was strong against spin loops, and to cover for the backhand weakness.) Of course, it might have been better for me to have just pushed long a lot, so I could practice against those spinny loops! It all comes down to finding a balance between doing what tactically works now (my not pushing long) versus longer-term strategic thinking (pushing long so I’d become more comfortable against spinny loops to my backhand). If I had strategically pushed long until I’d become comfortable against those spinny loops to my backhand, then there would have been some other weakness I’d have to cover up for – and, as noted above, eventually, if I wanted to win big matches, I had to accept that you sometimes have to simply cover up for your weaknesses or you’ll forever be exposing your weaknesses . . . and losing.
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