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Reducing Unforced Errors

The #1 Overlooked Secret To Winning Matches – Reducing Unforced Errors

Unforced errors are, by far, one of the most important factors that determine who wins or loses a table tennis match, especially when it comes to amateur-level table tennis .

It doesn’t matter how hard you hit your forehands, how good your serves are, or how spinny your backhand is. If you make more unforced errors than your opponent, you’ll probably lose.

I have seldom heard the concept of unforced errors mentioned or applied to amateur table tennis and it’s very strange to me that this concept isn’t as well studied as others.

We define ‘unforced mistakes’ as any error that either gives your opponent the point outright or gives them a huge advantage.

In this article, we’ll talk about how you can play better and win many more matches by making less unforced mistakes. Starting by categorizing the different kinds of unforced error.

The 2 Main Types of Unforced Error

There are 2 primary types of unforced mistakes: technical and tactical unforced mistakes.

Each of these unforced errors are just as impactful as any winning shot you play. Being able to minimize the number of unforced errors you make in each match is one of the fastest ways to improve your level.

Understanding Technical Unforced Mistakes

It’s probably not mind-blowing to you, the reader, to learn that making an unforced mistake is bad for your chances of winning a match.

You’re probably thinking, “yes, we all know that”. The solution is simple, you just have to train more and hit the ball better to make less technical unforced mistakes. 

But that is a huge misconception. 

You can train more, but if you keep taking bad shots, you’re still going to miss them!

Also, you can get a lot more shots on the table and make a lot fewer technical unforced mistakes without having to train more, and this is one of the key points of this article.

It all comes down to knowing your limits.

You see, the best way to play table tennis is to minimize unforced mistakes while maximizing shot quality. 

These two variables are, generally, inversely correlated. As one goes up, the other comes down. 

It’s much easier to get low-quality shots on the table, such as pushes or passive blocks, than to get high-quality shots on the table, such as flicks or counterloops.

The 3 Types of Amateur Table Tennis Players

In amateur table tennis, there are generally three types of players based on risk aversion and shot quality.

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Risk-Averse Players

Florian Bluhm

Risk-averse players whose primary concern is getting the ball on the other side. Their shot quality isn’t the best but they are quite consistent and their primary goal is minimizing their own unforced mistakes. 

We can say that risk-averse players commit few unforced mistakes at the cost of shot quality (they seldom go for high-quality shots).

Risk-averse players generally have Defender or Brick Wall playing styles.

Risk-Friendly Players

Quadri Aruna

Risk-friendly players are the ones who, quite simply, don’t choose their shots. They just go for them and they are willing to send the ball long or into the net if they are the ones going for big shots and attacking first.

We can say that risk-friendly players have great shot quality, capable of ending points outright, at the expense of committing many unforced mistakes per game.

Risk-friendly players often have the Aggressor playing style.

Balanced Players

Simon Gauzy

Balanced players are the ones who want to strike the right balance between having a relatively high shot quality while at the same time not making that many unforced mistakes.

We can say that balanced players tend to have normal levels of shot quality and they commit normal levels of unforced mistakes per game.

Balanced players often have the All-Rounder or the Controller playing styles.

As you can see, each way of playing has its advantages and disadvantages.

But what if I told you that you can play high-quality shots consistently while reducing the amount of unforced mistakes?

What if you could have the shot quality of risk-friendly players, who like hitting powerloops for winners, with the reduced unforced mistakes of risk-averse players?

The Prevailing Approach

Ma Long

The prevailing approach is the one that maximizes the shot quality of every shot and minimizes unforced errors.

How can you achieve this? By pushing yourself to the fullest in some shots, and dialing back on others. 

If you analyze any given professional table tennis match, you may be amazed by their shot quality. 

Shot quality is always the first thing you notice when you see someone play, and you may even determine a player’s level based on their shot quality.

However, the number of unforced mistakes they commit per game is just as important, and this often goes unnoticed. 

Professional players are so incredibly good because they strike the ball very powerfully, but, at the same time, they rarely make bad decisions or miss easy shots, something that happens quite often to non-professional table tennis players.

You will see them going for incredible loops, counterloops, and very high-quality shots, but they rarely miss unless their opponent forces them to do so. 

This is partly due to their great timing and skill, but also because they know their limits.

At first glance, knowing our limits sounds like we’re limiting ourselves. Like we can’t go for “ambitious” or high-risk shots because our lack of skill limits us.

However, this isn’t necessarily the case. 

One of the key concepts I want you to understand is that most amateur players can and should push their limits more in some shots and dial back on others.

I often see beginner and intermediate players going for very low percentage shots which they should play more safely or outright not try at all, but, at the same time, they could push their limits a lot more in other shots without lowering their shot %.

Being a good table tennis player is all about playing the best you can and playing to your absolute limit without exceeding it.

Most players could probably improve their shot placement, the speed of their blocks, the depth and height of their pushes, the quality of their serves, the spin of their open-ups, etc. without increasing their number of unforced errors.

Thinking about improving these shots will make you play a lot better because you’ll play closer to your real limit. 

Maximizing the quality of your pushes, blocks, serves, and touch game is super important. These shots determine how the point will develop and they largely influence who’s going to win it, and yet, many players underestimate their importance, especially in tournament play.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that most players can push their limits more in some shots. In others, I believe that most players should dial back and choose their shots better or play them more safely.

These shots are almost always loops, powerloops, counterloops, flicks, and other high-risk shots. 

As for these shots, you can take them, so long as you focus completely on getting the ball on the table, you get there in time, you are perfectly in position to play them, and, most importantly, you can land them while training.

  • Risk-takers don’t choose their shots, they always try and win the point outright.
  • Risk-averse players seldom take risks and hope their opponent makes more mistakes..
  • Balanced players always play in a balanced way.
  • Risk-takers don’t choose their shots, they always try and win the point outright.
  • Risk-averse players seldom take risks and hope their opponent makes more mistakes..
  • Balanced players always play in a balanced way.

What you should aim for, is to have:

  1. The shot quality of risk-takers when you’re in position to play a loop or a counterloop, and the ability to finish the point outright when you get an easy chance.
  2. The rhythm of balanced players when they play a loop-to-loop rally, you should aim for high-shot % but you should also not give up the initiative.
  3. And the safety of risk-averse players when you’re on the back foot.

The prevailing approach is knowing when to step on the gas and go for high-quality shots, when to attack prioritizing the safety of the shot, and when to prioritize getting the ball on the table by any means possible.

The playstyle derived from this approach wins every point when presented with an opportunity and doesn’t lose points easily when pressured.

This is how professional players play and how you should aim to play, judging every situation differently and playing the right shot every time.

How to Minimize Technical Unforced Mistakes

A great way to minimize technical unforced mistakes is by counting them and trying to recognize patterns. 

For reference, 0-3 unforced mistakes per game is a good number, 4 is definitely not good but not terrible either, 5+ needs to be improved urgently.

Once you recognize where you’re failing, you should think of that shot in 3 steps:

  1. Is that shot coherent with my tactics, and a smart shot to play altogether? If yes,
  2. Why did you miss?

If it was a technical mistake, you should think about what it was and correct it for the next time you play that shot.

If your timing was off, you were probably out of position and you aren’t moving fast enough. 

If you don’t know what it was, you were also probably out of position or you were standing too upright and you should bend your knees more.

  1. If you know why you missed, you went through this troubleshooting process, and you still struggle with this shot, you should probably go for a different, safer shot next time, and keep training the riskier shot in your training sessions. 

When playing matches, unforced mistakes are unacceptable. You can’t gift points to your opponent under any circumstances.

Continuing with this idea of not gifting points to your opponent, I would like to introduce an idea that will surely benefit you.

That is: What does my opponent have to do to win a point?

We often think about what we can do to win points, but we seldom put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes, even though doing so is just as important.

Let’s say that your opponent opens up towards your forehand. It’s quite spinny, but you go for a counterloop and miss. 

You try to troubleshoot the problem as we said before, you’re getting there in time, you’re low to the ground and you can pull off the shot in your training. However, in that same game, you went for the same counterloop 3 more times and landed it on the table only once. 

For the next game, a much wiser idea is to just go to a forehand block to their backhand and just play out the point. If they perform a backhand loop, you can just keep blocking while focusing on not missing yourself.

Let’s say that your opponent opens up towards your forehand 5 times in that game, you got 4 blocks on the table and then you kept blocking until your opponent eventually missed or you got the chance to attack. 

Now, let’s analyze both scenarios from your opponent’s point of view

What did your opponent need to do to win a point?

In the first game, they just had to open up towards your forehand. That would gift them a free point in the vast majority of scenarios.

In the second game, they had to open up towards your forehand and perform 3-4 backhand loops in a row to win the point.

There is a world of difference between how difficult it was to win the point for your opponent. In one scenario, as long as they got the open up on the table, they would win it instantly. In the other, they had to work a lot harder.

But, if you think about it from your perspective, it is easier to block 3 or 4 times in a row than to successfully counterloop a spinny ball and keep attacking yourself if they manage to block the counterloop.

This follows another crucial principle: the less unforced mistakes you make, the more unforced mistakes your opponent is going to make. 

Table tennis is all about getting the ball on the table. As we said before, this doesn’t mean playing extremely safely, but just knowing your limits and playing within them. 

If you’re low to the ground, you’re moving correctly, and you’re getting to most balls in time, you can play a very offensive game without making unforced mistakes.

This is what you should focus on. If you get to the ball correctly, play to your limit, and play high-percentage shots every time, not only will you not make unforced mistakes, but you will also generate points via your playstyle.

You should understand that, in table tennis, you will have moments and certain opportunities to dictate play, and, other times, you just have to focus on not missing.

It may happen all in the same rally, at the beginning of the rally you may be pushing, then looping and taking control, and maybe later on that point, you may be blocking to get the ball on the table and not lose.

If you can exert pressure when you get to the ball in time, and just not miss when you’re in a tough spot, there are very few scenarios in which you lose the match.

If you’re playing short rallies, it should be because you’re overpowering your opponent with good serves, receives, and 3rd ball attacks.

If you’re playing long rallies, it should be because you’re not missing much.

Tactical unforced mistakes

When playing any match, your tactics will significantly impact your chance of winning. Being able to optimize your own shots to neutralize your opponent’s strengths is a superpower.

There are many types of tactical unforced mistakes, all of which depends on who you’re playing against.

These include, for example, pushing long to the backhand of a player with a strong backhand open-up, serving topspin against a player who’s faster in the rally than you, serving backspin if you don’t have a strong open-up, passive blocking towards your opponent’s forehand, etc.

These unforced mistakes are just as important as the technical ones, and you should also aim to minimize these.

To do so, you should be always analyzing your own play and thinking about what leads you to win points and doing more of that while avoiding playing shots that benefit your opponent’s way of playing.

You should also count these when you count your unforced mistakes per game.

Conclusion 

To sum up, you should ideally be making 3 or fewer unforced mistakes per game. I advise you to count them every game you play.

To achieve the golden number of 3 or less mistakes, you should first:

  • Play shots that work for you and against your opponent.
  • Watch the ball carefully.
  • Move quickly and get to the ball in time.
  • Bend your knees and have a low center of gravity.
  • Graze the ball and hit it with the center of your racket.
  • Play shots that work for you and against your opponent.
  • Watch the ball carefully.
  • Move quickly and get to the ball in time.
  • Bend your knees and have a low center of gravity.
  • Graze the ball and hit it with the center of your racket.

These 5 guidelines will help you in any given situation. 

If you still have more than 3 unforced mistakes per game and you’re following these tips, then you should recognize patterns in the mistakes that you’re counting.

If you’re counting 5 unforced mistakes per game and 3 of them were by playing backhand strokes, you should probably play more passive shots on your backhand wing such as blocks or pushes, and maybe step around with your forehand a bit more.

If you’re counting 7 unforced mistakes per game and 4 of them were by playing forehand strokes, you should probably loop a bit slower.

Try to implement this method of playing and tell us your experience in the comments! 

How many unforced mistakes do you make per game, on average? Were you surprised by that number? Did this article help you improve your matchplay? Let us know!

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The Controller

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 09c | Backhand: Butterfly Rozena
Playstyle: The Controller

David's been playing Table Tennis since he was 12, earning his first coaching license in 2012. He's played in national team & individual competitions, although he prefers the more relaxed nature of a local league match! After earning his umpiring qualification in England, David moved to Australia and started Racket Insight to share information about the sport he loves.

Blade: Stiga WRB Offensive Classic | Forehand: Calibra LT | Backhand: Xiom Musa
Playstyle: All-Round Attacker

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