September 5, 2022 - The Simplicity of Tactics

When you lose a match against someone around your playing level, you didn't lose because your opponent calculated a series of seven shots of varying types, speeds, spins, depths, and placements, all presumably worked out on a blackboard in advance with lots of X's and O's, like they do in football. Nope, table tennis isn't like that. The sheer number of possible tactics is incredible, but individually, each of these zillions of tactics are themselves rather simple.

So why did you lose in an otherwise competitive match? Perhaps because your opponent had 1-3 tactics (consciously or subconsciously) that were more successful against you than the 1-3 tactics you used (consciously or subconsciously) against him.

The first key is to develop a large arsenal of possible tactics - with variations that increase that number greatly - and have them ready when needed. The second key is learning to recognize when to use which tactics. This takes experience.

Guess what? The sooner you start thinking this way, the sooner you'll gain that experience and start recognizing which tactics to use in any given match. Experiment, and don't fret too much about finding "perfect" tactics - find 1-3 that work, and don't worry about the other zillion possibilities, many of which may also work. In general, think about what serves and receives set up your attack or favorite type of rallies, and what type of rallying tactics favor your game.

Here are some examples of "simple" tactics that were successful, all from the last tournament I coached at.

  • In one match, the key was to attack all three spots - wide forehand, wide backhand, middle (roughly playing elbow) - but look to end the point to the forehand when that side opened up, as it invariably did after a few shots.
  • In two doubles matches, the key was to loop all deep serves, but drop nearly all short serves short - no flipping except as an occasional variation. The opponents in both of these doubles matches were just waiting for the ball to come out to them, so we didn't give them that. By bringing in the opponents, they got in each other's way, so we also played wide angles, to exasperate this. Result?  Two big upsets. (Sometimes the tactic[s] that work in one match work in another!)
  • In another, the tactic was simple - follow the opponent's elbow around and keep attacking it. The opponent had long arms and was very strong from the corners. So we rarely put a ball there.
  • In another, the key was also simple - take shots as quick as possible and take everything to the wide backhand. This was especially important on the return of serve, where I had the player take the ball quick and essentially chip it to the wide backhand. This took out the opponent's very strong forehand while reducing him to playing his weak backhand.
  • In another, the opponent had a very strong backhand, and a willingness to cover much of the table with it. But the forehand was weak. So we went after the forehand relentlessly, never going to the backhand side unless the opponent moved over to play backhand from the forehand side - and then we'd quick-block to the open backhand side, and then go right back to going after the forehand. We also did lots of fast, deep serves to the forehand. A match that started out scary turned into an easy win.

So, next time you play, what are the 1-3 tactics you will use?