Effective Use of Timeouts
Butterfly Table Tennis Coaching
by Han Xiao
Most players know that each player has one timeout over the course of the match. However, too many times I have seen matches between beginner or intermediate players where time outs are not used at all or are used ineffectively. In almost every match between players close in level there is some point in the match where a timeout has the potential to be effective. Today, we’ll go over some tips for using timeouts as well as some examples of times when time outs can change the match.
- If you have a coach, plan ahead together and trust the coach when he/she feels like a timeout is necessary.
If you have a coach, both the player and the coach need to be on the same page during the match. Know your own tendencies in order to come up with a plan together with a coach as to situations to look for. Are you an excellent frontrunner but tend to lose confidence when behind? Do you play well from behind but get nervous when you start to lose a lead? Do you have problems closing out games or matches? Are you more confident serving or receiving? There are a lot of factors that contribute to more effective times to call timeouts for each player, so being on the same page as the coach is crucial. This is even more important if the person coaching you is someone who is coaching you just for a match or just for a few matches, such as a club mate or practice partner.
Once the match has begun, you can of course call a timeout if you feel it is necessary. However, from my experience you should also trust the judgment of the coach. If the coach feels that you need a timeout, instead of waving it off it may be wise to accept the timeout. I see this very often when a player is beginning to lose a large lead or towards the end of games, when the player feels confident or feels that a timeout is not necessary. Sure, you may pull through and win the game anyway, but trust the coach if he/she feels that you need a psychological or tactical adjustment. More often than not someone on the outside has a clearer view of the match flow and tactics than the player playing the match.
- Don’t feel that you need to save your timeout for a single critical moment or the end of the match.
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see players make with their timeouts. Saving your timeout for what you perceive to be a big moment or the last game of the match may sound good in theory and feel like you are making the most of your one timeout, but in many matches you never get one of these big moments. For example, in a best of 5 match, if you save your timeouts early and are down 2-0 very quickly, then fall behind early in the third game, you may find that it is too late to use your timeouts and the match is already out of hand. On the other hand, if you had a chance to use your timeout to impact the result of one of the first two games, the match may be completely different at 1 game apiece. Using your timeout in this manner would have provided far more value than using your timeout when you are about to lose the match. Additionally, if you absolutely need to call a “desperation” timeout when you cannot afford to lose one more game, err on the side of calling it early. For example, in the scenario where you are down 2-0 in games in a best of 5, if the third game starts 3-0 or 4-1 in the opponent’s favor, I would strongly consider calling a timeout. Waiting until the opponent has a comfortable lead late in the game is usually far too late for adjustments to take effect. If you call a timeout very early in the game and make effective adjustments, you give yourself some room for error, bad luck, and all the other myriad ways you can lose a few points here and there.
- Try to use your timeout on your serve if possible.
The reason for this is quite simple. The player who holds the serve has the initiative and has control over how the point begins. If you have the serve, you also have the ability to change serves, change serve location, or do a number of other things in order to drastically change the point pattern. Thus, calling a timeout when the opponent holds the serve can be risky since even though you are making adjustments, the opponent can throw off all your plans by completely changing their service. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule based on match situations, but it is usually a good principle for calling timeouts.
- Calling a timeout to try to secure a game is almost always worth it.
This is a corollary of sorts to what we talked about in tip #2, not saving your timeouts until they are no longer effective. The Chinese National Team was one of the first teams to popularize calling timeouts to try to secure games, even very early in the match. For example, if one of his players was up game point in the first or seconds games, Liu Guoliang would often surprisingly call a timeout in order to try to secure the game. The theory behind this is that getting out to a game lead can establish momentum and allow players to play more freely since the Chinese National Team tend to be excellent frontrunners. Overall, this is a solid strategy if you feel that a timeout can really help you close out a game, even the first game of the match, especially if you feel momentum slipping away.
- Be very focused with adjustments in timeouts and plan for an entire service cycle.
A timeout is very similar to a break in between games in that trying to focus on too many adjustments can be detrimental since very few adjustments will actually stick in the mind of the player. Try to focus on one or two critical aspects of the game, whether it’s psychological or tactical. For example, a very good plan is to focus on the placement of the first attack or first block depending on the opponent and how to follow that up, or how to place the serve and the serve return. Let training and match experience take care of the rest. In some situations where the current point is extremely crucial, it may even be effective to plan exactly which serve or serve return to employ and how to play the early stages of the point.
Many coaches like to plan an entire service cycle during the timeout, meaning both their player’s serve and the opponent’s serve. This is usually quite effective since these adjustments can last the player through the rest of the game, however long it may be. Even if there is no guarantee that the game will not end in the next point or two, maintaining this practice can make sure that you are prepared if the game goes longer.
- Use your opponent’s timeout wisely as if it were your own and be aware that the player who calls the timeout has the ability to end it early.
When your opponent calls a timeout, use the timeout wisely. Make any necessary adjustments and try to anticipate some of the adjustments the opponent may make. For example, if the opponent has had a lot of trouble receiving your serve and has called a timeout on your serve late in the match, be prepared for the opponent to try to attack the serve or receive aggressively. If the opponent receives passively, you should be able to adjust quite easily, but if the opponent in fact is aggressive you have a plan to deal with it.
Also be aware that the player who calls the timeout has the ability to end the timeout before the minute is up. If the opponent calls a timeout, make any necessary adjustments quickly, especially if you are coaching someone. You might not have a full minute to talk to your player. On the other hand, when you call a timeout, only use as much time as you feel is necessary so that you remain in control.
- Sometimes, you can use a timeout even if you have no tactical adjustments.
There are a number of reasons for this. If the opponent is a very streaky player and is on a roll at a critical time in the match, there may not be many adjustments you can make, but you can call a timeout to cool them off. Use the full minute, walk around, and try to stall their momentum. You can similarly do this if you know someone has trouble closing out matches to put doubt in their mind. Another reason to call a timeout is to settle yourself down if you yourself are a streaky player and you are on a cold streak. Using a timeout can be a good way to settle yourself down and try to eliminate some of your unforced errors. Yet another reason to use a timeout without any need to make tactical adjustments is if you simply need a break physically due to fatigue. Although this is not ideal, many players find themselves physically fatigued, especially late in the match, and cannot call a medical timeout since they are not injured. It can be very effective to take a minute to catch your breath and regroup rather than trying to gut it out and giving away free points as a result.
As you can tell, using timeouts is a very subjective and complex art. It certainly is not a science for many players and coaches and it is very difficult to compare or contrast different methodologies for using timeouts. However, having a general idea of some effective ways of using timeouts can be very beneficial even for beginners and can make competitive matches much more interesting. Hopefully, you can use some of these tips and win a few more matches by improving your timeout effectiveness.