A wise friend of mine once remarked that “table tennis is like real-time chess”. He was right. The main battles we have when playing table tennis are in the mind.
Plenty of players have incredible technique but struggle in competitive matches, whilst tournament winners always have the same ability to leverage their skillset when it matters (even when playing against better players).
With hundreds of tournaments under our belts, our team has devised 8 mental and tactical concepts that, if applied correctly, will prepare you for your next tournament and allow you to win more table tennis matches.
You still need to train hard and develop your skills, but these tips will allow you to beat players more technically skilled than you. They won’t know what happened.
1. Know your game
The first step you must take to be effective in table tennis is to know yourself.
Socrates said that you have to know yourself to live according to your nature.
This phrase applies to our everyday lives, but it also translates perfectly to table tennis. You have to know yourself as a player to play according to your style.
This introspective step is vital for any table tennis player. If you don’t know yourself, you won’t know what to do in a game. The idea of developing a style also relies on thinking of tactics to make the most of your skillset.
Ryu Seung Min didn’t have a reliable offensive backhand stroke in his arsenal and he won an Olympic gold medal.
He was able to achieve such a feat because he crafted his tactics in a way that made his strong forehand a lot more relevant than his weak backhand, and he played every single point with the intent of enabling his prodigious forehand loop.
I invite you to do the following exercise:
When you play a table tennis match, analyze the reasons for all your points won and lost.
Do you have a lot of unforced errors from hitting it long? Do you win a lot of points with a spinny open-up? How many points do you earn when you’re forced into the back-foot? Are you better with your forehand or your backhand? How do you deal with your opponent’s spin?
In addition to this, listen to the opinion of your coach and other players.
After this, write or think of a complete list of your strengths and weaknesses.
Plan your matches so that you play to your strengths while avoiding your weaknesses. This is the main takeaway from the exercise we just did.
If you consistently play to your strengths, your winning percentage is going to shoot up drastically. You are playing with a clear intention in mind, going out to play your own game.
It’s important that, when playing, you serve and receive with the intent of playing out your style.
2. Approach matches with the right mindset
In general, I would say that most of the players that I see in amateur tournaments do not have the right mindset to win matches.
It is very difficult to have the right mindset from the get-go, and for this reason, we must also work on our mental game. You can also check out our top psychological tips for the mental side of table tennis.
Setting goals for your tournament
What I recommend when going to play a tournament is not to set any result-oriented goals.
Don’t go to a tournament thinking “my goal for this tournament is to place first”. In my opinion, this is the worst thing you can do.
Not only will you feel frustrated later if you don’t achieve your goal, but you’ll put additional pressure on yourself to achieve a self-imposed objective.
Instead, I recommend setting a process-oriented goal.
Your goal when going to play a tournament has to be to play well.
If you go into a tournament with the idea that you want to play well, you’re going to shift your focus from something you can’t fully control, which is placing high in the tournament, to something you can control, which is playing well or not.
In table tennis, tournament matches are normally 5 games long. In practically all scenarios, the one who plays better of the two wins. If you concentrate on playing well, your chances will obviously improve.
Don’t think about results, think about your own game and what you can adjust to play better.
The Fire and Ice strategy, by Roger Federer
Like many players, I have always faced challenges with my mental game.
I used to play every game with a very strong desire to win, which would translate into anxiety and negative emotions when the game wasn’t going to plan.
This led to lots of bad experiences and frustration. Everyone plays table tennis for fun, so if you aren’t enjoying tournament matches, then you’re doing something wrong.
Having recognized the problem, I tried to dial it back a notch and play with less desire to win. However, I also wasn’t happy with this solution, since the desire to win made competing interesting for me.
From my previous point of view, I could never strike the balance between wanting to win and controlling my emotions. That’s where learning from Roger Federer can help.
If we look at Federer’s matches, we see that he always stays calm and that he’s very good on the points that matter the most. At the same time, Roger has an incredible fighting spirit.
What Roger Federer says is that he has a fire and ice strategy.
“It took me almost three years, a good three years to figure myself out on a court. How am I happy, I always call it the fire and ice situation. The fire wanting to win, being excited after a good point and the ice coolness of accepting losses, accepting bad shots (…)”Roger Federer
This translates perfectly to table tennis. I believe there are countless things to learn from sporting legends, regardless of the sport they play.
You have to have fire in your heart and ice in your veins. You must want to win and fight for every point, staying calm and graceful when defeat inevitably comes. Even Ma Long (our greatest player of all time) can’t win every match.
Wanting to win and staying calm when you’re losing aren’t opposites, even though they may seem like it. If you lose, keep your head up and congratulate your opponent on their win. You gave it your all but they were better.
Go into your matches with the intention of simply playing well and fighting for every point, while thinking about your tactics and the development of the match in a calm way.
Also, try to remember why you’re playing. Table tennis is the sport we love. You may feel tense or nervous but the idea of playing in a tournament is having fun while experiencing the thrill of competing.
There’s no problem if you lose an easy point. As long as you stay calm, there is always a chance of victory. In table tennis, if you’re still playing, it means you haven’t lost.
3. Warm up properly
A very common mistake I see players make when playing a tournament is to warm up incorrectly or not even warm up at all.
If you have enough time, we recommend that you do our ideal warm-up for table tennis, but if you don’t, go straight to the table.
Once you’re warming up, take some time to hit some consistent forehands and backhands.
Always leave at least 5-10 minutes for practising open-ups and game situations.
When I was a beginner, if I had 20 minutes to warm up, I would do 10 minutes of forehand loops and 10 minutes of backhand loops.
If I now have 20 minutes to warm up, I assign 5 minutes for forehands, 5 for backhands, 5 for open-ups, and 5 for match situations.
It is crucial that you warm up your serves, the short game, and your open-ups.
These shots are much more important than getting a perfect static forehand loop, which you are almost never going to do in a match situation.
Before each match, you’ll also have another short warm up. Generally just 2 short minutes.
It is very important that you use these 2 minutes to the maximum. By this time, you should have already warmed up, so the most important thing in these 2 minutes is to gather information about your opponent.
4. Analyze your opponent’s game
First and foremost, you should take a look at what equipment your opponent has.
Do they play with two inverted rubbers or do they have short pips, long pips, or antispin on one side of their racket?
Secondly, pay attention to their shots. Are they fast and with heavy spin, or are you comfortable blocking them?
If you feel comfortable blocking, you can play with a lower urgency to attack. If your opponent hits too hard, then you may have to adjust your tactics.
In addition to this, what is the trajectory of your opponent’s shots? Do they flat hit the ball? Do they hit high arching shots or are they low to the net?
All this is essential information that will help you time your shots correctly.
If your opponent hits with a high arc, it’s usually because they put a lot of topspin on the ball, so you have to close your racket angle to block their shots.
If their arc is low, it usually means that your opponent is hitting with more speed than spin, so you have to be very focused if you want to have a chance at returning their fast shots.
Another basic thing that you should analyze is the force with which they play on both sides.
Most players have a more powerful forehand in comparison to their backhand, but this is not always the case.
You should also check if your opponent is good with their footwork and transitioning between their strokes. Some players are great with their transitions but their shots aren’t that strong, while others hit very hard but they aren’t as efficient.
Also, pay attention when your opponent is blocking for you. Hit some spinny loops and see if they have trouble handling them. If they do, you can get some easy points in the match with spin-heavy shots.
5. Adjust Your Tempo
This is the most important part of this article. These concepts took me years to understand, and they are extremely important in the development of any table tennis match.
These are new concepts for many, but we are going to explain them in great detail.
First, let’s talk about your style as a player. To illustrate this concept, we are going to use the speed categories of table tennis blades.
All players fall within this spectrum. Each of us has a range that we are particularly good at.
Using myself as an example, I’m a good player in the OFF- to OFF+ range. I can go out every point trying to execute 3rd ball powerloops (OFF+), but I can also stay close to the table doing spinny open-ups and short offensive strokes (OFF-).
This concept is proportional to the idea of playing tempo.
We define tempo as the urgency of a player to attack first and to be on the front foot.
You’ll find players who do anything to attack and take risky shots frequently to try to be the one on the offensive, while others just concede the attack to their opponents.
To the left of the spectrum, players let their opponents attack first.
A DEF- player is a classic defender who never attacks. This player gives the priority to attack to their opponent and drops back to defend their attacks. They might have slightly different, more defensive match strategies.
To the right of the spectrum, players try to attack first by any means possible.
An OFF+ player does not let any opportunity pass. Any ball is fair game to them. If the ball is short, they attack with flicks. If it goes long, they attack with loops. They always want to attack first and hate being on the back foot.
If you think about it, on the left of the spectrum there are much fewer unforced errors than on the right of the spectrum.
It’s much easier to just return the ball with pushes or blocks than it is to try to flick and power loop every ball.
It is very important that you know your base tempo as a player and that you can quickly assess your opponent’s tempo for 2 main reasons:
Knowing your opponent’s tempo will largely dictate your own tempo.
In table tennis, there is a great dichotomy.
You will have people who will tell you: “In table tennis, the most consistent player always wins.”
Others never get tired of saying that “In table tennis, the one who attacks first wins”.
Who’s right? To some extent, both. The question lies in finding the sweet spot.
Would you be able to keep the ball on the table your opponent attacked first every point? Surely not, and the same is true the other way round.
Because of this, you have to find the point where you attack first and put the ball on the table or let your opponent attack first as long as you can return the ball properly.
This is why they say that table tennis is like chess. You have to find the tactic that allows you to defeat your rival since all the players are different “puzzles to solve”.
Let’s say you’re going to play against a classic defending player. Is it a good idea to do 3rd ball attacks that hit the table 3 out of 4 times? Probably not.
This is because 1 out of 4 points will be lost to the unforced mistake on the 3rd ball attack, and on top of that, the classic defender will return most of those attacks.
This is a clear mistake that comes from not understanding the opponent’s tempo.
Time and time again I have seen beginners getting desperate trying to attack long pip players with more and more power.
What happens in this situation is the following:
Remember how we said that to the left of the spectrum there are less unforced mistakes?
An offensive player who tries to attack a long pips player desperately will almost certainly lose.
The defender won’t attack the offensive player. The offensive player will always have attack priority, so they should pick the easiest ball and attack that one.
Defenders win from their opponent’s mistakes. If they have no mistakes, they’ll win easily.
That is the reason why coaches will tell the offensive player to push the ball and wait for their chance to attack. If offensive players only attack when they have an easy chance, then they will beat the long pips player easily.
Now, let’s look at the opposite case. Let’s say you’re playing against an ultra offensive player. Is it a good idea to do 3rd ball attacks that hit the table 3 out of 4 times?
Probably, yes. This is because if you don’t attack them, they will attack you, so it is preferable to make some unforced mistakes to have the first attack and set the general pace of the game.
This is also why points between offensive players are only a few shots long. They are both doing everything in their power to dictate the tempo of the game and be the one on the front foot.
Another thing to keep in mind is whether you can block the attacks of a given offensive player. If so, you can feed off of their mistakes and attack only when you have a chance.
The main takeaway at this point is that knowing your own style and knowing how much your opponent wants to attack you is what is going to dictate which balls you have to attack and which balls you shouldn’t.
Tinkering with your own tempo will help you manage your unforced errors.
Let’s say you are an offensive player. In the first game of your match, you try to attempt third ball attacks and get 3 out of 6 on the table. You lose that game 11-8.
It is common to struggle with your rhythm and flow at the start of a match, so I would recommend taking a small step back in your tempo.
Now, you might try only 3 third ball attacks on the balls that are most comfortable for you. Otherwise, you touch short or block your opponent’s attacks. As a result, you put all your open-ups on the table and win the game.
In the next game, you feel that you are already warmed up and that you can play a more offensive game. You try again with more third-ball attacks and hit 5 of 6.
In this example, we see how the issue of unforced mistakes and first attack is handled.
In the first game, the player went out to play an OFF+ game, but they made a lot of unforced errors and lost.
Because of this, they went out to play an OFF- game in the second game and minimized their mistakes. In the third game, they felt more confident and stepped the tempo up a notch.
If you’re attacking first and it’s not working (either you’re making unforced mistakes or your opponent is handling your shots easily), then it’s critical that you change the game plan accordingly.
It is essential that you find a winning game state.
This leads me to my next point.
6. Don’t stick to a losing tactic (variation)
When you’re losing, you should never continue to play the game on the same terms. The outcome will be inevitable.
Always look for ways to turn the match around. Even if you won a game, analyze the reason for the points that you lost.
For example, if you win a game 11-8, there were 8 points that you lost. If you can understand why you lost those 8 points and counter it, the next game will swing even further in your favor.
If you lost the game, there are going to be a lot of things to change. Think about your opponent’s serves that are causing you problems, the reason for your forced and unforced errors, and also think about the points you won.
If your opponent is moving you with backhand blocks, play either to their elbow or forehand. If your opponent is winning all the points from you with spinny open-ups, touch short, flick, or open up first.
Even if you don’t have a good flick, having your opponent deal with a completely different receive is going to make them hesitate and make mistakes.
It is much better to try all of the possible solutions than to simply lose by repeating the same tactic over and over again. Generally, you will find that if you keep changing your placement or your strokes, there will be one or two variants that will work for you.
Then, your opponent will likely respond with another tactical change, and so the match will develop with a tactical battle to see who can play best to their strengths.
If there is no tactical fight, it should be because you changed your game and your opponent did not know how to respond. Never stick to a losing tactic.
7. Be vigilant at the beginning of every game and decisive in the end.
It is important that each game you enter with the mentality of adapting as quickly as possible to the match.
All games are going to start in different ways. Let’s say you’ve won the first game 11-5. A very favorable result for you.
However, because you’ve won by such a large margin, you should go into the next game even more focused. Your opponent, seeing that they lost the first game, is going to come out and play with a different game plan.
If you are not careful, you can start the game losing several easy points and struggling to find a foothold.
At the end of each game, we recommend that you stick to what has been earning you points throughout the match, or execute set plays that you have pre-planned in training.
For example, I really like to serve half-long no-spin at decisive points, disguising it as backspin. This is my main tactic for decisive points.
Your opponent is going to see a backspin serve that doesn’t go long, and they probably want to make sure they play the point. Most of the time, they will push the serve and it will pop up, leading to an easy chance.
8. Manage your emotions and play around timeouts
Managing emotions is a very important part of table tennis.
If you miss an easy attack, try to think about the next point, and do not dwell on your mistake.
This is called the next point mentality. If you’re always thinking about how to make the most of your next point, there’s no room for emotion. Stay poised, thinking about how to make the most of your next point.
If you get upset about something or if your opponent is winning lots of points in succession, use your time out to relax and think things through.
A good rule of thumb is to always call a timeout unless you’re winning the match easily.
If you lose a match and didn’t call a timeout, you missed an opportunity where you could calm down and rethink things to turn the match around (this is also related to not sticking to a losing tactic).
Also, the timeout has a psychological impact on your opponent, so it’s always worth using. It’s one of our key strategies for winning close matches.
If your match/league doesn’t allow time-outs, slow down the game and take a few seconds between each point to think about your strategy and calm your emotions down.