April 3, 2017 - Coaching Tournament Matches

[This is an excerpt from Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers.]

Many players either give or receive coaching at tournaments at some point. But what magic words of wisdom can a coach say between games that can transform a losing game into inspired victory?

If I had those words, I’d sell them for a lot of money.

Not having those words to give to you, here is the next best thing: what type of things you can say, as a coach, to get the most out of the short time you have between games with your player. It might not transform your player into a member of the National Team (or maybe it will), but it might turn a close loss into a victory, and might even make a lopsided match close.

Start by judging the player’s emotional state. Is he too tense? Too lackadaisical? If the first, your first job is to calm him down. If the latter, you must wake him up.

If you are coaching an overly excitable player, make sure to be calm and relaxed when you speak to him. Speak slowly and clearly. Tell him to take his time and clear his mind. If he is angry with himself, you have to get him to put that aside, maybe even say a joke to get his mind off whatever is bothering him. You have to clear his mind.

If the player seems lackluster, this doesn’t mean you do the reverse and talk fast and excitedly. (An interesting idea!) Tell him to fight! Use your own emotions to psych him up. Perhaps be a little excited. Let him know that his match is important, and perhaps he will start to think so as well. Note that a player often wants to win a match badly, and wants to try hard, but cannot get himself up for the match without help. You are that help.

Now that your player is properly psyched up and/or calm and relaxed, what do you tell him? The basic rule is: Not Too Much.

If you fill your player’s mind with ten intricate tactics for winning, all you’ve accomplished is confusing your player’s mind. He’s not going to remember much of it, if any. It’s best to decide the most important things, and forget the rest. Keep it simple. Remember KISS, which in this case can be for “Keep it Short and Simple.”

Remember the very start of chapter one? “Tactics isn’t about finding complex strategies to defeat an opponent. Tactics is about sifting through all the zillions of possible tactics and finding a few simple ones that work.” Remember this both when you play and when you coach.

A good breakdown of advice between games would be, at most, two or three things about serving, one or two things about receiving, and one or two things about rallying. But remember that less is often more—you don’t want to come up with the maximum number of items for each of these three areas. Sometimes you might only do perhaps one thing about serve, one about receive, and one about rallying. Or perhaps some other combination of two or three things.

During a rally a player can’t stop and think about each shot. The only time he can do that is when he is serving. Therefore, service tactics are the most useful ones that can be given, and the most easily followed.

Service tactics can be broken down into the same two types as they were in the chapter on Service Tactics: set-up serves and trick serves. Set-up serves are those that the player should use most often, i.e. perhaps serve short backspin to the forehand and follow with a loop, or maybe serve fast and deep and following up by hitting. Trick serves are those that a player can use to get a “free” point, but can only be used occasionally, such as a fast down-the-line serve to the forehand, or a fast no-spin to the middle. A good coach can figure out which of these types of serves will be most effective.

Receive tactics are often very specific. Should the player loop the deep serve? Against short serves, should the player mostly flip, push short, or push long? Should he return serves to the forehand or backhand side? But remember to remind the player to vary the receive. Often a player, in following the coach’s advice, becomes predictable.

Rallying tactics are the hardest for most players to follow—they can’t stop and think over what to do, and usually they’re busy getting back into position, rather than being in a ready position as when receiving. Give simple and more general strategy, such as “Stay close to the table,” or “Look for chances to attack his middle.” Or the generic, “Play aggressive!”

Service tactics should often be combined with how the serve should be followed up, since that’s normally the whole purpose of the serve. For example, you may tell a player to do a certain serve mostly short to the forehand and follow with a loop mostly to the opponent’s elbow.

One thing that often comes up: when coaching kids, don’t talk down to them. Literally. Squat down to their level. Deep down, it’s psychologically intimidating to have to crane your neck to look up at a coach, who is looking down at you while spewing his words of wisdom.

Also be careful about being preachy when coaching. Make it a two-way thing—there’s no crime in asking the player what his tactics are, and then expanding on what he’s already doing. Before a match, before I say anything tactical, I sometimes ask the player I’m coaching, “What’s your game plan?” If he has a good one, then all I do is expand on it.

Stay upbeat and positive. If you’re not happy with what the player is doing, there’s a temptation to be negative or start lecturing in a preachy fashion. This doesn’t help. Instead, stay positive as you coach. Always remember that what may seem simple from the sidelines isn’t always so simple at the table.

Never bring up the opponent’s rating. If the opponent is higher, it might intimidate your player, while if it’s lower, it puts pressure on them to win against this “weaker” opponent. Never mention how important the match is or anything else that might bring unneeded pressure to the match. In fact, do the opposite to remove pressure. I often tell players to imagine it’s just another match at the club.

Make sure you are familiar with a player’s game and skills if you are coaching him. The last thing you want to do is tell him to do something he isn’t able to do at a proficient level, or isn’t comfortable with. You might want to ask the player to let you know if there’s anything you are saying that he’s not comfortable with—otherwise you may never find out, and your coaching may be counter-productive.

Except occasionally at the beginning levels, between games is not the time to talk about technique. It’s too late; techniques have to be ingrained in advance. Occasionally a coach can spot a basic technique flaw that was causing the player to miss, but it’s rare that the player can make an adjustment on the fly in the middle of a match. However, there are exceptions.

Sometimes a coach doesn’t even have to coach much; sometimes all a player needs is someone he can explain his tactics to, to help him clarify his own thinking, though you should speak up if you have something to add. A good coach should be a good listener before and after matches, and even during a match, within the constraints of the short amount of time he has between games and in time-outs (one minute in each case).

A coach might also want to call a time-out at a key point in a match. See the section on this in the chapter on Conventional Tactics. Remember that the final decision on whether to take a time-out is the player’s, so I always tell my players in advance that if I call a time-out, but they feel they are focused and know what to do, they should turn it down and save the time-out for later when they may better need it.

Now for the clincher. If you are a player and don’t have a coach when you play, you can follow the above and coach yourself between games. Break things down as shown above, and pretty soon you’ll be your favorite, most reliable coach.