Starting From Scratch With Stephen

This post will be old news to a lot of coaches. I don’t get the opportunity to work with a lot of young players. Most of my students are older, and some are really old. They come with their bad habits, unusual strokes, and bad footwork already ingrained. I’m very comfortable working with these types of players, because I’m one of them. I might be a little more patient and understanding than a younger coach. I never got any coaching until I was forty, and was probably playing my best at sixty. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s not easy. 

I’ve coached teenagers and kids before, but Stephen was different. Stephen is my grandson, so our relationship is not primarily built on table tennis. I’ve been coaching him for about two years, and I’ve learned as much as he has.  We train once a week. He doesn’t play anywhere else. When we started, we would only do thirty minute sessions. Now we do at least forty five minutes, and sometimes an hour. Is he the best player that I’ve ever coached? No, but he might end up with that distinction. Stephen didn’t start with any bad habits, and I was determined to keep him from developing any. This was uncharted territory for me. I had no idea how things would go. Here are the most significant observations from our two years of training.

  • I tried to keep it fun. This wasn’t always easy. Some days went better than others. To me, thirty minutes of training, once a week, didn’t seem like much. I just wasn’t sure how much improvement could be made with so little training. But, if every session couldn’t be fun, at least it could be brief. It turns out that these short workouts were very beneficial. Stephen made steady progress, and even though progress was slow, he never went backwards. 
  • He had a good paddle. I started him out with an all around-minus paddle, with 1.0 sponge. This was my chance to see what would happen if a player learned basic strokes with a very basic paddle. He used this setup for about a year. For Christmas he got a sheet of 2.0 tacky rubber for his forehand. Wow! Stephen has a great forehand loop. He loops off of underspin, or against topspin equally well, and doesn’t seem to be fazed by spin changes at all. I didn’t see this coming. I knew his loop looked technically correct with the 1.0 sponge, but once he went to the thicker 2.0, this shot came alive. He’ll get more power in this shot as he grows older. But for now, he is extremely consistent, gets lots of spin, and has the best forehand loop of anyone I’ve ever coached. 
  • I needed to let him play. For a coach, there’s a tendency to want to train new players, and not emphasise matches. In an effort to make it more fun, we would play games where he would get the point if he was able to keep the ball on the table for three shots in a row. Once he was winning consistently, we upped the number to four, and then to five. This proved to be especially helpful. He learned not to over hit, and he doesn’t make a lot of unforced errors. Sometimes, he would be required to attack after the third ball. My job was simply to block his shots or lob and chop. Occasionally I will attack, and have been surprised how often he is able to block these more aggressive shots. 

Stephen still has a long way to go. He’ll need to get more experience against different types of players. But, he’s got a great forehand loop, a steady backhand, and a good foundation to build on. Think how good he might be when he’s 18! This one’s for you Stevie…..

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