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(By Brian Pace)

One of the major complaints that players have about tournament play is, why can’t they compete at the same level that they play. The answer to that is one concept, and that is “Tactical Focus”. That is the missing link behind why tournament performances are erratic in nature. Just like your forehand loop, backhand block, and short serve, your tactical focus is something that needs to trained as well. These are all the concepts you must develop to be able to enter the tournament and create tactical focus.

The question that I always get is what is tactical focus. Instead of answering that question let me explain what your performance is like without it. You are in the tournament, and you find that you are playing good, but aren’t getting the victory from match to match. You get in the car to think about it on the way home like most players do, but you can’t come up with answer. And you go to bed and wake up frustrated because you have no idea what you need to modify. That is your table tennis performance without tactical focus. Or you are playing good and near the victory, but the moment becomes too big for you, and you simply shrink mentally and emotionally. You got the performance you wanted, but didn’t get the result you were looking for. Or lastly, you lose to a player that you can’t see what they have better than you that would make you accept that they are a better player. Again, you drive home, go to bed, and still wake up frustrated with you answers. This is what you go through when you don’t have tactical focus. If you have played tournaments long enough, you have had all three of those experiences post tournament. And it is a clear indicator that you are talented, but you haven’t developed one of the most sophisticated aspects of table tennis.

Identify Your Style
What players do too often is compete based on instinct, instead of making the approach systematic. One day the backhand is playing well, and the next day it is the short game. When you identify your style, you put in order the importance of each shot in your game. This will ensure that you will use the shots that hold up your style. Over time you will learn how all the shots in your game will interact with each other with the focus on making sure they promote the way you play that identifies your style. Identifying your style will help you understand how you match up against a chopper, defensive player, all-arounder, as well as a two-wing attacker.

Playing Right vs Playing Good
I have told everyone that I have worked with that you can’t control if you play good, but you have total control over if you play right. Playing correct is a by-product of training and focus on your goal. It is creating a game play, following that game plan, and not letting your opponent change that game plan. Playing good is a matter of eating properly, getting the right amount of sleep, drinking your favorite Starbucks drink, etc. Any of those factors can throw off how you feel, which will have an impact on how good you play. When you are playing correct, you will ensure that you have the best performance based on what you are thinking. If you are playing good, it doesn’t mean that you are playing right, and you can easily have a bad run of match even though it looks like physically feeling good, as well as mechanically firing on all cylinders. This combination is what creates “Tactical Fatigue” during the tournament. It is because the player can equate that they are executing their shots on a higher than normal level, but they are coming up short with regards to the victory. What you want to happen is along with playing good you are playing right. That is a virtual guarantee that you will have an above average tournament day.

Learn Your Opponent’s Style
The benefit of identifying a style is understanding the hot and cold skills inside that style. The goal is to create a skill match-up that favors you. This is one of the easiest ways to maintain tactical focus since you are searching for and taking advantage of the skill deficits in your opponent’s game. A focused mindset will eliminate the chance of feeling tactically exhausted or confused. When tactical focus can’t be maintained is when thing aren’t going their way, or the moment is becoming too big for them to handle. If you are constantly testing the waters with regards to what is effective, it will eliminate the anxiety that can build up during the match.

Test for Weaknesses
Just because your opponent may be an attacker doesn’t mean they are good at it. It just means that they are committed to attacking. So, test your opponent’s ability to execute the attack on a level that would provoke you to avoid it. As a player, there is more anxiety over the projected attack of your opponent than the actual attack itself. Make it a point in the earlier part of the game to assess their attack to see if it can overwhelm your defense. If it can, create a different pathway into the point. If it can’t, then you should accept that they will kill one shot pass you, but miss four attempt after that. Either way, you need to know their kill/miss ratio because that will allow you to pinpoint how you need to approach your shot selection.

Testing for weaknesses can also be reluctantly attacking to a player with good defense if they serve the ball deep. At a glance, you may feel overly excited because you are getting to the attack first. But it can all be a part of their approach to let you attack so they can start playing defense. Most players imploded in this situation because they want to do more than just attack the ball, they want to shatter it. What you must survey is if the shot you are playing is causing your opponent some tactical discomfort. If they are handling your shot with ease, then they have designed their game for you to play your attack to them. To test for their weaknesses, you can downgrade your effort to just a simple exchange to force your opponent to come out their defensive mentality, and switch to attack position. This will cause them some tactical disorientation, and they will spend some time thinking if they should attack the exchange or just play it back in hopes of you attacking the next return. The thought process complete shifts just by downgrading your effort, and that is how you slow the game down and allow your opponent to reveal their agenda. If you can do this, then you have the tactical upper hand, because you can attack them when they aren’t expecting it. You can create a ratio of simple exchanges to attacks that keep your opponent unaware of your approach. If they don’t know what you planning, then they can’t anticipate your next play.

Create Skill/Kill Ratio of 70%/30%
Another way to maintain tactical focus is by creating the proper ratio of skill to kill shots. The skill shots are described as the shots that you can play that your opponent touches the ball and they still make an error. That can be a lateral spin serve that they can’t return. Pushing the ball with a high degree of spin that your opponent can’t manage. It can be making simple exchanges until they miss because you are more consistent. It can also be attacking the middle where most players do a bad job at stroke management. Focusing on ball placement all over the table is a skill-based approach to make your opponent miss because of bad stroke management as well. These skill shots make up approximately 7 points per game. The other 4 points you want to come in form of your kill shots like smashes and loop kills. If you focus on your skill based game, then you can use those shots to compliment your kill shots. A short serve return to the forehand that your opponent can’t attack is perfect way to use your forehand loop down the line to their backhand as a kill shot. Attacking the middle that creates a loose ball is another way you can end the point with a kill shot, but the assist in the point came from the skill based placement shot. As your level increases, the greater the demand will be for you to have these shots work in tandem to control the sequence of play.

Some of the tactical focus that is developed comes in training, but most of it comes in tournament play. It should be developed and monitored as your level increases to gauge its effectiveness just like every other skill in your game. These simple ways of approaching gameplay are how you can keep yourself distracted from the fact that you are about to have the win of day, the tournament, the year, or your career. Tactical focus is the barrier between your emotions and the result you are looking for. The more you develop your tactical focus, the more often you will be able to play your best when the moment calls for it.

My name is Brian, and I’ll see you on the table.

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