Hope everyone had a great Christmas!
This post is all about the steps you need to take in order to learn a new skill, or practise an old one.
#1 Perform the skill
The first thing we must do is learn to perform the skill. For example, hitting a forehand topspin on the table in a repeatable way. Why repeatable? So when we make mistakes, we know exactly where we went wrong because we are trying to do more or less the same thing each time, learning to minimise our mistakes and repeat our successes. It also needs to be repeatable so that we can progress to…
#2 Performing the skill well
In table tennis, “well” means with consistency, not speed. U.S. coach Larry Hodges says that you don’t truly have a forehand until you can hit 100 without a mistake. Aiming for consistency at first is like strength training in a way. You develop the muscles you need to play the shot precisely by playing it over and over. Only then can you play the shot faster, once the muscles are well developed. Trying to make a precise movement at speed that you can’t already do consistently leads to a lot of mistakes, and possibly even injuries.
#3 Perform the skill well and at speed
Ok, so now we can perform the skill consistently, we can progress to increasing our speed. Speed in table tennis does not always mean hitting the ball faster. Adding some sort of footwork in between the skill we are practicing is probably the best way to increase the execution speed of the stroke, as we need to move to the incoming ball first, giving us less time to actually play our stroke. If footwork is the skill we are practicing, simply lessen the time between incoming balls so our feet must move faster, meaning we must find our balance faster before playing the shot also. To increase the difficulty level even more, make the footwork drill a random one. This will mean we have to judge a randomly placed ball before moving, even further reducing the time to actually play the stroke.
#4 Perform the skill well, at speed and under fatigue
Fatigue happens in table tennis matches, making us marginally slower as the match goes on. Luckily, we’re also subject to fatigue during our training sessions. The important thing is that we make sure we train until we are fatigued, and then train a little more, especially with intensive drills like footwork. An important thing to remember is at the top level, one set to 11 takes an average of 7 minutes. Therefore, a hard-fought match that goes to the 5th set would take around 35 minutes. Make sure you can train intensively for at least that long, giving 100% for the entire time. The last few minutes, when you feel too tired to continue, are the most important in this case.
#5 Perform the skill well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure
In close match situations, things change significantly. That skill you’ve been perfecting over the last 4 steps can totally break down when you need to execute it at 10-10 in the deciding set. That’s why, in this step, you need to incorporate some kind of stakes into your practice of the skill. Some competition with a training partner who is practicing the same skill can help. For example, each have 10 attempts at the skill, and whoever executes it the most number of times out of that 10 is the winner. The punishment for losing should be something you both care enough about that it really makes you try during the drill, to simulate the effort you’ll put in during one of those close match situations. I recommend some kind of physical training, so that the punishment is something that will still improve your overall game. Burpees, for example, are definitely an exercise everyone should hate if they are doing them properly, and are good for table tennis specific muscles.
Additionally, simply recognising the fact that you have not practiced the skill a lot in pressure situations, and saying because of that you’ll forgive yourself if you attempt it in a close match situation and miss can both give you more opportunities to practice the skill under pressure, and even make it more likely for you to be successful in those opportunities, because you’ve already told yourself that a mistake is not the end of the world.
#6 Perform the skill well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently
As Goldsmith says under this point in his article: “Being able to perform the skill under competition conditions oncecould be luck, but being able to do it consistently in competition conditions is the sign of a real champion.”
Cultivate a sense of pride in your performance under pressure. Take a long term view on your results in close match situations, remembering the results in at least the last 10 such occasions. Winning anything above 50% of these situations means that you are, in fact, “good under pressure”. As mentioned in #5, this should become easier as you give yourself “permission” to make mistakes in pressure situations while you are still learning a skill and integrating it into your game.
#7 Perform the skill well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently in competition conditions
There’s probably not that much difference between this step and the previous one. If your pressure training in steps 5 and 6 has done its job, you should be performing your chosen skill pretty successfully in most real match situations.
However, in closing, it’s worth mentioning that performing under pressure is never something that you can do every time. The mental battle is one that is never truly won, it must simply be fought every time you step onto the court. Even those who have won the battle thousands of times before must still maintain a constant vigilance in their mental state.
Took me a while to do that! Enjoy and sorry for the delay!