by Han Xiao
A lot of players have a lot of variety in their game. They can hit a lot of different shots, have different speeds and spins, and are consistent players. However, some of these players still lose to players with objectively worse technique and less variety in their play. Why is this?
A good example I saw recently that illustrates this problem is when I watched a junior player play a much older player. The junior player has good power, good variety, good control of spin and pace, etc. The older player was close in level, but his technique was not as good as the junior player. However, this older player has an extremely good backhand in the rally while having a weaker forehand. The junior player knew this and often gained an advantage in the rally by playing wide to the forehand and backing the older player off the table. However, more often than not after playing several balls to the wide forehand, the junior player would switch the ball back to the middle or backhand side and be forced to face a strong backhand, eventually losing the match.
What did this junior player do wrong? For one, moving your opponent from the wide forehand to the backhand is usually a tactic used to pin strong forehand players on the backhand side. It’s not nearly as effective against backhand dominant players. However, the most important thing he failed to realize was that it’s not a bad thing to do one thing over and over again if your opponent cannot cope with that tactic. Changing, in this case changing placement, just for the sake of it is often ineffective and sometimes is counterproductive, like in this match.
This was an illustration of unnecessary change within the point, but the same applies to changes between points. Many players win a point with a certain serve and a certain tactic, and immediately change the next point regardless of whether the opponent is making obvious adjustments. An example of this is if you win a point by serving short no spin to the opponent’s forehand, the opponent is slow to the ball and reaches for the return, you attack the next ball strong and win the point, but the next point you decide to serve deep to the backhand to surprise them. It may work once in a while, but unless the opponent is obviously jumping on the short serve, it’s not the right play. It’s very important not to change just to change, but to stick with a tactic that is working until the opponent begins to adjust. You can even extend this principle to changing excessively between games or between matches. After winning a game or match against an opponent, it may be natural to think about how they will adjust to your tactics. However, until that opponent actually begins to adjust, don’t prematurely change your game plan.
Just like most tactical thinking in table tennis, there are no absolutes when it comes to sticking with the game plan. If the opponent is obviously changing their positioning or their stance to cope with something that has been working against them, it may be time to adjust. However, most of the time when I watch intermediate players, the problem isn’t that players adjust too late, it’s that they adjust too early or don’t recognize tactics that are working. When you play a match, try to take notice if you are winning points consistently using a certain tactic, whether it’s a certain placement, spin, or combination of different factors. Then, keep using that tactic and force the opponent to adjust. Have a plan for what to do when the opponent adjusts, but don’t be afraid to change back to your original tactic when the opponent then begins to adjust to your plan B. For example, if you’ve been getting strong attacks by serving short no spin to the forehand but your opponent is starting to stand closer and closer to the table to get a jump on these serves, start mixing in some deep serves to the opponent’s middle and backhand and be ready to rally. Once the opponent has backed off the table again so that they aren’t caught by these deep serves, remove them from your service rotation again and go back to the original tactic.
Overall, it is very difficult to set any hard and fast rules about when to adjust and when to change game plans. However, it is important to recognize what is working and to have a game plan rather than changing tactics haphazardly. This will help you perform much more consistently in competition and more easily defeat inferior opponents.