Have You the Right Weapons?
To be a champion at table tennis requires you to have the right weapons, both generally and specifically. By generally we mean for the men’s or the women’s game, by specifically we mean relevant to the way you play as an individual. Weapons usually refer to 3 areas, physical, mental and technical/tactical.
The men’s and women’s games are very different and require different weapons. Men win points primarily with spin and power. Their main strength is the powerful forehand topspin stroke and usually everything is secondary to reaching the right position to use this. Such a pattern is not relevant to women’s table tennis.
The ability to control speed is primary to women’s table tennis. And not only to control the speed but to do this with safety until an opening presents itself. This is why so many women use material; this is an aid to controlling the opponent’s speed and returning a different type of ball, which breaks up the opponent’s rhythm. There are many more styles of play in the women’s game and basically points are won with placement, speed and change of speed, rotation and change of rotation. To control the play securely and safely on the backhand is an essential ability and also to have a suitable response when the opponent switches from the backhand into the forehand. When working with girls most of the focus needs to be on playing different strokes and combinations near the table and not backing away especially when moving from one wing to the other.
Each player has his/her own way of playing. This is called style and is personal and individual to the player concerned. The specific weapons required here are those which are most relevant to the manner in which the player performs and which will make him/her most effective. However each opponent you meet will have a different style and your usual weapons may not always be appropriate to every situation. You may at times have to play differently against certain opponents and with weapons other than those you would normally prefer. This is a crucial point to bear in mind. You will need alternatives and to have the capability to play a different game at times.
The physical attributes of the player must of course be most appropriate to the player’s style. There would be little point in a close-to-table attacker having very slow reactions or a backspin defender having no stamina and being slow to move in and out. Each player must, early on in his/her career, evaluate the physical characteristics which will be most beneficial to development of the individual style and then hone these to perfection.
Equally the mental side is as, if not more, important. Almost all top players work hard, fight for every point and rarely lose touch with what is happening in the game. However where the mental aspect is crucial is more in the attitude or state of mind of the individual player. A defender for example will more often than not have a conservative approach to the game and will want to keep the ball in play and wait for the opponent to make mistakes (although even in the case of defensive players there are many differing types, from retrievers to offensive defenders). On the other hand the attacker will usually be more aggressive and will want to win the point as early as possible in the rally. It is important that the player’s style conform to his/her mental state of mind.
Technique is of course the basis of all tactics and it is imperative that the player has the technical weapons to be able to carry out the tactics he/she will most use with his/her style of play. This of course means that the weapons must be specific and tailored to the individual style of the player. The weapons too are not just comprised of the type of strokes to be played but also the timing, the right ready position, distance from the table, how serve and receive are used and most importantly the movement patterns and the preparation. Unless you move in the correct way for your style you will not come to the ball in the right way to use your weapons, not quickly enough, not with a stable base nor with good balance. Your weapons will then be ineffective.
For the player to be successful there has to be a blending and harmonising of these 3 areas. He/she requires the right physical input, the appropriate mental attitudes and the correctly honed techniques to be most effective in the execution of the tactics relevant to his/her style of play.
Let us examine several scenarios.
What weapons are important to the close-to-table player?
• In the physical frame early reading of the play, fast reactions and dynamic movement
• On the mental side the attitude of patient control until the right moment arises to win the point, aggression but within a framework of control
• Technically/tactically a square stance at all times with one or two step patterns across the end-line.
• Good coverage in the crossover area with often more use of BH
• Timing most often at early or late ascending stage, with the ability to both absorb and utilise the opponent’s power, spin or speed
• The capability to convert at will between spin and drive and vary pace, length, angles and placement
• Strong in short play with good feel, touch and variation
• Good use of serves, both long and short and strong 3rd ball, using appropriate spin or power
• The understanding when to take the half step back and when to feed in extra spin/power
• Comprehension of own comfort zone and the next sector back
What weapons are appropriate to the mid-distance topspin player?
• Obviously not so fast reactions, but good dynamic movement, good stamina and good upper body strength. Topspin off the table requires power in the upper body. Movement needs to be dynamic as often the FH will be used over much of the table
• Mentally the player must be feel that this sort of style is how he/she wants to play
• A reasonably square stance much of the time, but side to square at times and with good crossing movement patterns to the wider balls
• Good coverage in the crossover area more often than not with the FH wing
• Timing more often at peak or early descending with the ability to keep speed/spin on the ball. Occasionally balls played later with less power/pace and/or more spin
• The capability to play more or less spin, harder or softer, use of sidespin to angles or body
• Good short play geared to flick or longer pushes to feed into own topspin game
• Use of half-long, longer serves to get opportunities with 3rd ball spin
• The understanding when to come in for short play and when to drop back to contain. Recognition of own comfort zone but some expertise in the sectors either side
A defensive backspin player on the other hand would need rather different weapons.
• Excellent stamina and good dynamic movement. The defender will play longer points than almost any player and the movement patterns encompass both side to side and in and out movements. Important too that the defender can read the play early in order to get into position in time to take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities
• Must mentally have the patience to keep the ball in play and to be prepared for long points but also the courage to change things and (in the present climate to eleven up) to attack when an opportunity presents itself
• Both squarer stance (close to the table) and side to square at times when in a deeper position. Both sidestepping and crossing sequences required depending on the strokes and the distance from the table
• Use of both FH and BH in crossover, often BH closer to the table and at times when deeper (sidespin chop with BH from crossover for example) but also FH backspin and counters from the crossover when in a back from table position
• All timing points used from early/late descending to early ascending (e.g. blocks and stop balls over the table). The defender must have the capability to switch between differing timing zones at will. This is especially important with the bigger ball, games to eleven and no glue
• The capability to play more or less spin (both topspin and backspin) harder or softer. Not only should the defender be able to switch between backspin and float, but also between topspin (slow and fast) and drive play (and even ‘fishing’)
• Defenders must also nowadays be competent over the table and in short play and able to take a positive advantage in this area
• Serve and receive assume much more importance to the defensive player in the modern game. It’s vital that the defender can use the serve and 3rd ball effectively at crucial stages in the game. Equally important is the ability to vary the receive, to chop, float or even to stop-block or topspin to change the form of the rally
• The modern defender must more fully comprehend the various playing zones and distances from the table to a greater extent than almost any other player
• It is vital too that although the defender may spend most time in the mid-distance area (the area from which defence is most effective with flatter, faster backspin balls over-riding the Magnus effect and also the area from which the defender can win points by countering) that he/she is comfortable both further back (in the retrieving position) and also competent close to the table