Moving Up a Level

Larry Hodges (2007)

What does it mean to move up a level in table tennis? I’d define two players to be on different levels if it would be a major upset if one defeated the other. Another way of looking at it would be to say that if the stronger player plays his normal level, he would win nearly every time.

Based on this, I’d say that a level in table tennis (using the USATT rating system) ranges from about 300 points at the lower levels (under 1000) to about 100 points at the higher levels (over 2500). For most USATT players, a level would be about 200 points. How can you move up a level? By improving all parts of your game, because one weak link in your game is like a weak link in a chain. You could work hard, dramatically improve one aspect of your game, and hope to move up a level. But it’s not that simple. Suppose you develop a really nice forehand loop. With this weapon, you would think that your level would go up dramatically. And sure enough, you will do better against players around your own level.

But when you play players at a level higher, their level is far enough ahead of yours that they’ll simply do something to disarm your new weapon. They may serve or push short, push very heavy, throw spinny or fast serves at you, use ball placement, block well, force backhand exchanges, play quick shots, or simply attack first to take your weapon (in this case your forehand loop) away. Often, stronger players will seem to win on one of their strengths, when in fact they are winning by exploiting a weakness of yours that allows them to use their strength. A strength in your game can compensate for a weakness, but only to a certain extent. A stronger player will simply set up his strengths by going at your weaknesses.

The lesson is that to move up a level, you need to improve your game overall, not just one aspect. A player who is a level stronger than you rarely defeats you with one aspect of his game; he does so by using the overall level of his game. There are, of course, players who have improved all but one aspect of their game and by improving that one final aspect, suddenly go up the coveted level! So how do you go about moving your game up a level? You have to be able to match the higher-level players on five key things:

  1. Returning your opponent’s serves as well as they return yours.
  2. Either rally as fast as your opponents do, or force your opponents to rally at your pace (by slowing the pace down with pushes, slow loops, controlled drives, etc.). Rallying at their pace can also mean reacting to their pace (i.e. blocking or chopping), because “pace” means both speed and quickness.
  3. Reacting to your opponent’s rallying spins (loops, pushes, chops, lobs, spins returned by long pips, etc.) as well as they react to yours.
  4. Ending the point (i.e. smashing or loop killing) as well as your opponents do. This can also mean stopping them from ending the point effectively or consistently by not giving them easy shots, or it can mean a series of strong shots that win the point.
  5. And finally, possessing at least one strength which threatens your opponents as much as their strengths threaten you. This includes having a way to get your strength(s) into play.

You may have noted that tactics is not one of the five “keys.” This is because tactics is part of all five keys. Stronger/weaker tactics simply make you stronger/weaker in each key. If you can do some (but not all) of the above five keys, your performance in a tournament will go up some, perhaps half a level, but not a full level. Developing a single “overpowering” strength won’t raise your level as much as you’d think, as opponents a level higher will beat you on the less developed parts of your game. Even players at your “previous” level will still often beat you by exploiting these weaknesses. But … if you work to improve all five of these keys, you may find yourself going up dramatically.

What’s stronger, a chain with four powerful links and one weak one, or a chain with five pretty strong ones?