Table tennis has so many tough and challenging elements to it, but which is the hardest thing to do? Lots of players focus on technique, trying to keep calm under pressure, or getting those killer serves, all these are of course important areas to improve however players rarely realise the underlying reason for mistakes that occur.
Some players struggle with technical elements like correct arm movements, body position and footwork. While others find the tactical side of the game more difficult for example how to beat pushers, stopping other players attacking or which serves to use when. Or perhaps it’s the mental game you have a battle with, things like dealing with the fear of losing or struggling with pressure and nerves.
However, I believe there is something even more challenging and hard to master than everything mentioned above…. shot selection! The hardest part of table tennis in my opinion is choosing correctly which shot to play and how you are going to reply to you opponent in less than half a second, every single shot. A table tennis player has to decide hundreds of time in a match, which shot he or she is going to play, and calculate those key decisions in a split second!
The other difficult part about shot selection is the amount of factors involved, your decision has to be based on:
1. The level of your own abilities- Your movement, coordination, judgement and ability to play certain strokes.
2. The ball coming from the opponent- Speed, spin, placement, high, low.
3. Where you are positioned- Far from the table, close to the table, out wide etc
4. Your opponent’s attributes and skills- Are they poor at pushing, struggle with high balls, has a strong forehand topspin etc.
5. Opponents positioning- Close, away, backhand or forehand side etc
6. Your mental condition- Nervous and tight, relaxed, feeling confident, tired, etc
7. What is your opponent’s mental and physical state- Are they irritated and stressed, calm and composed, confident etc.
8. The score- Are you leading, maybe it’s 10-10 or you are a long way behind
And many more!
In order to play the most effective shot in any situation you need to consider all the factors above and still make your decision with very limited time. Even then your brain needs to communicate this choice to your body and muscles so you can perform the actions before the ball reaches you. This ability to make correct decisions at high speed is very difficult and yet so vital, it’s often overlooked and is something needed every single time you play a shot.
This is why being tactically aware in table tennis takes while to develop, you have to constantly make these decisions and commit the successful patterns to memory. So, in the future if a similar scenario occurs the decision can be made quicker as the information from a positive outcome is stored. This means a player is constantly sub-consciously comparing the current situation to thousands of similar ones in the past to choose the correct shot.
Table tennis is played at such high speed that it is almost impossible to analyse all the factors we mentioned earlier on every single shot and therefore those past experiences and decisions made become very relevant!
How Can I Improve My Shot Selection?
There are some great ways to improve shot selection in your training and it will take time, but these will help you get there.
1. Practice set situations. Focus on one situation and work on it, this means you’ll be able to store the decisions you make in this situation. An example of this could be touching the serve back short, opponent pushes long and then playing a topspin down the line.
2. Add more choices as you go, so for example now you touch back short and when the opponent pushes long again but this time you can play a topspin down the line or crosscourt.
3. Watch table tennis- Seeing what top players do in certain situations and the decisions they make can help you learn. Try to watch the shot selections and patterns of play rather than the ball. When you are playing table tennis you will visualise the shot before you play it so watching more table tennis can help you pick up cues which you can use when it comes to quick decisions.
4. Up your playing time and play with a variety of players! This one is important because by playing more and with different players you will be forced into different situations and making more decisions, which helps build up a huge mental database of correct decisions by learning from your mistakes and from your successful shots.
Having better decision making and shot selection cannot underestimated as a tool for improvement and getting better results. So next time you play table tennis don’t be too quick to blame a poor shot or being too slow, think about what type of shot you were trying to play, was it correct and how to adapt the next time around, doing this will help you overcome the hardest thing in table tennis!
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