June 8, 2017

Improvement of Players Who “Goof Off”
What comes first, chicken or the egg? It’s sort of like a question that comes up regularly in table tennis. Obviously, players who work harder and train more seriously tend to get better than those who do not. But there’s a related question. Suppose you have two developing players who roughly work and train equally as hard, with one exception – while Player A is nearly 100% serious, Player B will sometimes goof off and use weird strokes. How does this latter habit effect a developing player?

I’ve noticed over many decades of coaching and observing that players who focus nearly 100% on doing the shots right, all the time, almost always improve much faster and become much better players than those who spend even a small amount of their developing time goofing off by throwing in “weird” shots. I’ve come to believe that when a developing player, after working hard for a time, throws in a few “goof off” shots where he intentionally does the shot wrong, he might be undoing much of his earlier practice and confusing his subconscious so the technique doesn’t turn into muscle memory.

For example, suppose I’m teaching forehands to two players. One is focused on getting it right, and so gets it right. The other is also mostly focused on getting it right, but interrupts practice somewhat regularly to throw in different variations of the stroke. My impression is that the first player improves much faster and gets much better because the subconscious, which is what is really learning the strokes, picks up what’s needed without interference, and so it efficiently becomes muscle memory. The latter player doesn’t improve as fast since the subconscious is confused as to what is supposed to become muscle memory, and so doesn’t learn as fast.

The problem here is there’s a second possibility. The latter player might not improve as fast because he’s confusing the subconscious as to what it should be doing, and so doesn’t develop muscle memory as well or as fast. But that itself might be a side effect – it’s possible that the first player, the one who doesn’t “goof off” in this way, is simply a more focused player, and that’s why he improves faster than the latter, who might simply be less focused and so picks up techniques more slowly and with more difficulty.

As I’ve explained to students many times, there are some things in table tennis where you should be creative, and other things where you should focus on just getting it right. You can be creative with your serve, receive, placement, and various tactics. But in getting the techniques right, you should generally put aside creativity and focus on getting it right until it’s muscle memory. Some, however, simply find this difficult, perhaps due to a lack of patience, and so they throw in weird "experimental" shots, which might be undoing much of their earlier practice. I wonder if there have been studies on this problem in other sports?

Once you have a shot down so you can do essentially do it in your sleep, then you should experiment on possible variations that might be trickier for the opponent to deal with – but only after the shot is pretty much mastered. For example, once you can loop pretty well, and the stroke is pretty much mastered, then you can experiment with shots such as hooking with sidespin, inside-out loops, dummy loops (loops with no spin), and other variations.

Note that this doesn't mean players shouldn't ever "goof off." Some superstar players like Waldner were notorious for sometimes goofing off in practice. But they did so only after they had mastered the basics - usually very early in their careers, as little kids. 

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