Being a good table tennis player is equal parts a matter of technique, heart, and mind.
What matters most, however, is being able to pull through difficult situations and winning those matches that are too close to call. Finding a way to play to the best of your abilities in high-pressure scenarios.
In this article, we’re going to explain how you can perform better in close matches and the later stages of tournaments.
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The first step to becoming a clutch table tennis player is having a strong desire to win. One of the most important attributes of a good table tennis player is their fighting spirit, which greatly determines their chances of winning or losing, especially in high-stakes matches.
A strong fighting spirit is essential if you want to win tournaments and have a successful career in table tennis, even as an amateur player.
If you don’t care that much about winning, you’ll lose every time against players with strong fighting spirits who’d give anything in their power to win a single point at a time.
You’ll ask, how does wanting to win or not affect the outcome of a match? What does wanting to win mean?
If you really want to win, you’ll focus a lot more. You’ll think about your decisions. You won’t want to waste a single point. Every point you win will feel like a massive accomplishment, and this will show in your body language and your confidence.
Wanting to win is refusing to envision an outcome in which you do not come out as the winner, whilst doing everything in your power to ensure you win every single point.
It is not a coincidence that some players play a lot better when the stakes are high and rarely lose in the final stages of a tournament, even if they aren’t more technically proficient than their opponents.
These are the so-called clutch players that we’ll explore in this article and they, first and foremost, want to win above anything else.
Why would you want to win, though?
In my opinion, Koizumi Jo from Ping Pong the Animation said it best:
It must be noted, however, that, if you do lose, you should take pride in having done everything to win. Sometimes, it just isn’t enough, and that’s fine.
Give your best while you’re playing, and if you end up losing, congratulate your opponent, think about what you can improve, and show up to the training hall for your next session to polish your weak points and have fun.
Table tennis will always give you a rematch as long as you’re giving your best and having fun.
If you win, celebrate!
If you lose, no big deal. You’ll know what to improve and you’ll show up as a better version of yourself the next time you get to compete.
Apart from wanting to win, the second crucial aspect of being a clutch player is being able to focus wholly on the task at hand.
In the crucial stages of a match, you’ll need to be able to read spin, depth, and placement in the shortest amount of time possible to plan your shots.
If you aren’t able to focus properly, then you won’t be able to make the most out of your technical abilities.
If you can focus completely on the ball, you could even enter flow state, and in this mental state, it’s nearly impossible to lose.
Use your towel and your time out
If you want to be a clutch player, then using your towel breaks and your time out wisely is crucial.
Firstly, always have a towel with you even if you don’t need it. Use those few seconds every six points to calm yourself down and think about your next moves.
Think about how you’ve been receiving your opponent’s serves, how your opponent has been dealing with your serves, what’s working for you, and what isn’t.
This information will play a very important part in your efforts to sway the match in your favor.
Your time out is also one of the most valuable tools you have during a table tennis match.
One piece of advice I can give you is to try to use your time out almost every match.
The only time you should avoid using your time out is if you’re beating your opponent easily. Otherwise, there’s always a reason to call a timeout.
You can, and should call a time-out if:
These are the main situations in which you should call a time-out, but there are many more.
I would advise that you try calling timeouts more often so that you get to know yourself, your game, and your emotions better.
Play with no regrets
One of the biggest pieces of advice I could give you is to play with no regrets, that is, you should play in such a way that you know you will not regret it once the match is over.
This means that you should take controlled, smart risks. This piece of advice is all about finding the right balance between playing safely enough that you don’t lose crucial points on unforced mistakes but also don’t play too safely and end up giving the initiative to your opponent.
These two are the situations that you could ultimately regret, playing too safely or playing too recklessly.
If you play too safe and just push and block the ball back, chances are that you’ll lose points because you didn’t put enough pressure on your opponent and they were given lots of time to attack.
If you play too recklessly and attack every ball, chances are that you’ll miss your attacks, and you’ll just throw the match away.
The correct way to play out the crucial points in a match is to tread the fine line between attacking your opponent and putting the ball on the table.
If you think that by attacking with control, there’s around a 70% chance of winning the point, then don’t doubt and pull the trigger. Otherwise, you’ll regret it later on when it’s all said and done. Play with no regrets!
Believe in yourself
One of the most important attributes of the best table tennis players is that they believe in themselves.
Clutch players excel at closing out matches and pulling off amazing comebacks. This is largely because they never lose faith that they are going to win. You should aim to replicate this mentality if you want to win more matches.
In table tennis, if you are still playing, it means you haven’t lost yet. If you’re playing in a competition, remember that you are a player who’s trained hard to be there and that you also have a clear set of strengths that you can utilize.
Table tennis matches are hard. They are both mentally and physically taxing. If you are willing to embrace adversity and fight for every point, you have a much greater chance of winning.
Even if you feel like everything’s against you, it’s important to avoid doubt. If you doubt your possibility of winning, then you’ll often play a passive game and gift your opponent a victory.
The difference between mentally strong table tennis players and average players is that mentally strong players always believe in themselves and trust that they can win.
This mentality has a huge impact on the outcome of matches, especially in tight or important games.
It goes without saying that you should never focus on negative outcomes. Some players entertain the thought that they are going to lose if they feel like their opponent is playing well or if their opponent is making a comeback.
If you feel like you’re going to lose, call a time-out if it’s available and pull yourself together. Otherwise, use your towel and take a bit longer than usual to calm yourself down and reset your mental state.
Keep it simple
One of the main pieces of advice I could give you is that you should keep things simple during the most important points.
If you’re playing an important point, it’s safe to assume there have already been things that worked for you and your opponent throughout the match.
Your best bet is to try and use the tactics that are favorable to you when you’re serving, and to expect your opponent to utilize the tactics that are favorable to them when they’re serving.
You should go through the points you play step by step. Winning table tennis points isn’t easy.
In the vast majority of cases, you won’t get to serve and smash a high ball for an easy point.
If you are better in the short game, then serve short and play out the short game. If you’re expected to win 70-80% of the points that include the short game, then don’t be afraid to play it out, even if the idea of playing a long rally in a crucial point seems daunting.
The most important thing is knowing that you shouldn’t rush. You should try to keep it simple and utilize what’s been working.
If you’ve been winning points by serving backspin, opening up, and loop killing the 5th ball, then you should come to the clutch points aiming to do the same.
However, some players like to vary up their serves when playing out the most important points. This is a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
If you’re going to use a new serve in the most important stages of the match, you will have the element of surprise in your favor, but you won’t know how your opponent will return the ball, since you haven’t seen their response before.
I recommend that you stick to what’s been working unless you feel confident in that your new serve will grant you an easy chance.
For example, if you have been serving underspin throughout the match and your opponent has pushed all of the serves, this would be a good scenario to switch things up and serve no-spin.
Your opponent will most likely push the ball and pop it up, granting you an easy chance.
However, there is a small possibility that they’ll read the no-spin serve well and attack your serve. Whereas if you had served underspin they would have pushed it, granting you the first attack.
If one of your serves has been giving you good results, is it worth it to try a new one?
That is something that you should consider each and every time depending on the circumstances of the match, weighing the pros and cons of each alternative.
Put yourself in your opponent’s shoes
Every time you play an important match, tensions will be high since there’s so much at stake.
Something that really helps me is thinking that my opponent is in the same situation as me. This mental strategy helps in two ways:
Firstly, you’ll understand that being a bit nervous and feeling pressure is ok. Everyone has to go through it and it’s completely normal.
If you don’t feel any kind of pressure, it probably means that the match doesn’t really matter to you, which isn’t optimal.
I also personally find that a slight bit of pressure and nervousness helps me play better as I can concentrate more.
If you find yourself being nervous, think that your opponent is in the same tough spot as you.
And secondly, this way of thinking makes it easier to interpret what our opponent is going to do.
If we put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes, we can understand their thought process, granting us key insights to end up winning the most important points.
If our opponent has played few or no backhand flicks in the entire match, we can take the informed guess based on the data thus far that they will push the ball.
In these instances, it’s extremely unlikely that our opponent will try a flick out of nowhere if they haven’t tried it already many times in the match. Our opponent will try to play a safe receive in the most important points, aiming to keep it simple, as we explained before.
We can then serve no-spin or heavy sidespin using this information.
If our opponent hasn’t yet tried a particular receive or strategy, we can rule it out as a possibility in the most important stages of a match. They will most likely play as they’ve been playing, or they’ll play a slightly safer version of how they’ve been playing.
Knowing this information, we can take a few controlled risks like serving no-spin or trying to take advantage of their tendencies as they will most likely resort to doing strictly what they know best, and little else.
Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 100 in his native Argentina. He loves to compete in provincial tournaments and is always looking for ways to improve. Alvaro made his favourite memories with a racket in hand, and he joined the RacketInsight team to share his passion with other players!
Blade: Butterfly Fan Zhendong ALC | Forehand: Butterfly Dignics 05 | Backhand: Butterfly Rozena
Playstyle: The Controller