Let’s start with what actually relaxes players in the midst of a match. Nothing relaxes me like a big lead. The flipside of this is the extreme pressure that comes from losing a big lead. I find that detecting some obvious weaknesses in my opponents game has a very calming effect on me. Even a little luck can relax players. Land a few improbable shots, and you can start to feel like this just might be your day.
This is not an article about strategy, or how to handle match situations when you are beginning to feel like it might not be your day. Instead, this is about training in such a way that you are able to play your best. Rarely do we have a match where we play perfectly. Most players would have to admit that most of their incredibly great shots were often at least somewhat accidental. Perfection in table tennis is rare and fleeting.
To get closer to perfection in matches, one must start to make perfection a goal for training. I’ve coached enough players to notice some similarities in the players who have shown the most improvement. Merely watching players train; you might not be able to tell who will play better in a match situation. But, have these same players start playing out points, and you will quickly see who you would bet on if they were keeping score. The difference often comes down to slight differences in three key areas.
- Footwork/positioning – Some players cover a lot of territory. Others, stay close to the table and don’t seem to use much footwork. It’s not how much you move, but more about using some movement, and how efficient that movement is. Different styles require different footwork. A player who is out of position is going to find it hard to make very many “perfect” shots. Fixing footwork problems sometimes means getting players doing structured drills, and sometimes convincing them to slow down, but it definitely requires a striving for perfection.
- Timing – Just as footwork can be too slow or too fast, some players struggle with changing the speed of their shots. Many seem to have one speed that they typically play at. Drills that force them to change speeds, or adapt to different speeds can be very helpful. It may take awhile to incorporate these changes into matches. Often, the key is to persuade the player to win some points with finesse, and not only with power or patience.
- Precision – The difference in a good push or a bad one sometimes is a very small difference in racket angle. The difference in a good serve or a poor one could be a matter of inches in placement. The difference in the quality of a players backhand might be found in their ability to make twenty in a row or one hundred. The players that improve most make a habit out of being precise.
It’s far easier to be perfect in training. Perfection in a match is sometimes hard to come by (see Winning Ugly ) A commitment to practicing every shot as perfectly as possible is the best way to be closer to perfect under pressure.