I have recently written 2 controversial articles about upsetting higher rated players in table tennis. What is the correct mindset? Going for broke or playing normal? In the blog, I have included both articles and a summary of how to harmonize them together to have the best possible result.
Taking the Risk
When playing a much, much higher rated opponent, it is critical to challenge him early in the match. If you are a 1500-rated player competing against a 2000-rated player, you will likely lose. If you play your normal game (statistically speaking), you don’t have a huge chance of winning. This is the reason that you need to take some risk and CHALLENGE your opponent.
Assuming that you are a 1500 looper and your opponent is a 2000 looper, here are some possible ways of taking slightly more risk and challenging him…
#1 Normally, you might attack some long serves and push some long serves. This time, you might need to force yourself initially to loop ALL long serves.
#2 Normally, you might loop very controlled on the first three loops before driving the ball harder. This time, you might need to loop STRONGER on the initial ball to force your opponent into more passive defense.
#3 Normally, you might block when your opponent loops. This time, you might need to block the first ball then go for a COUNTERLOOP on the next ball.
#4 Normally, you might play away from the table with controlled topspin. This time, you might need to force yourself to STAY CLOSER and pressure your opponent.
When I say to challenge your opponent,
I don’t mean… going for wild shots.
I don’t mean… trying to flip-kill every serve.
I don’t mean… trying to backhand counterloop every shot.
I DO MEAN… pushing yourself to take necessary risks to put added pressure on your opponent. Once you win the first game and your opponent becomes nervous, then it is easier to continue playing well. If your dominant opponent wins the first game and gets a 6-1 lead in the second, then he will likely mow through you to a 3-0 win. Taking reasonable risk and challenging your opponent EARLY in the match is a critical aspect to pulling out that huge upset that you have always dreamed about.
The biggest upsets happen when you play normal.
This principle applies to everyone…. Olympians and national team players and intermediate players and beginners. If you are playing against a great player, you must play within yourself, play your normal game. Obviously, you need to make a plan against that specific opponent and make tactical adjustments as needed, but if you panic and try to play outside your normal level, you will be inconsistent and beat yourself. You must know what you are capable of and stay within your range. If you give a simple push and your opponent rips a 90mph forehand past you on the first point, what do you do? You adjust your receiving accordingly, stay calm and play your game. Adjust your game, but still play your game.
Trying to play 500 points higher than you have every played in your life will lead to tactical suicide.
When playing higher level opponents, why can’t you go wild and just swing for everything. Typically, you can’t consistently do this because of their ball quality – their serves are lower, pushes are heavier, banana flips are spinnier, loops are deeper, blocks are quicker, etc. Against that quality of shot, there is no way that you can just go into “wild man” mode and smash everything. But if you stay within your consistency range, try to play your normal shots with quality, trust your rallying ability, and maintain consistency, you really do have a chance for that upset you have always dreamed about. I’m going to wrap up this article by giving you 3 quick stories to further illustrate my point…
True Story #1
Last week at the Badger Open, I played an unrated opponent who was better than me. Before the match, I was talking with him, and he somehow got the wrong impression that I was like an amazing player. Within the first couple points, I hit a couple of very good shots. Leading 5-1 in the first game, I severely injured my neck. I didn’t matter. My opponent was already off his game because he was overplaying me. He thought that I was like 2700 so he had to go for big shots. He beat himself and gave me the 3-0 win without me doing much at all. This is an example of overplaying.
True Story #2
At the 2016 Arnold Challenge, I played Yichi Zhang. The first game he was on fire hitting ridiculous forehand and backhand winners. I panicked and overplayed the next 2 game being extremely inconsistent. After the match, he sat down next to me and said, “What are you doing? Why did you play like that.” I explained that he was on fire so I needed to raise my level. He explained that he was only on fire the first game; after that, he played his normal level. Had I played my normal game, I could have won, but my panic-mode-all-out-hitting style gave him an easy victory. This is an example of overplaying.
True Story #3
At the 2014 US Open, I was playing in the top 32 of men’s singles against Tao. He had just destroyed a 2700 4-0 in the previous match, and I knew that he was a top contender to win the US Open. I had a really week goal of trying to score 5 points each set, wow, what a weak goal. The first game he didn’t do anything special and I really overplayed it just merely beating myself point after point because I was up against a “superstar”. After the first game, I had a serious conversation with myself and I convinced myself that he was playing a normal 2500 level and that it was 50/50 match. I won the next 2 games. Credit to Tao, he did raise his level and win the next 3 games by making some tactical adjustments. He stayed level-headed, didn’t panic, and made the right adjustments. So why am I giving this scenario? To brag to the world that I was leading 2-1 against Tao? Nope. That has nothing to do with you. The point of this story is to get you to understand that your greatest win will come when you can play normal. Play your normal game and don’t panic.
After a big win, often players and coaches come up to me and say, “What was your secret? What did you do?” Of course, there was the pre-match planning, the during-the-match adjustments, but the one main thing that always rises to the top…
Playing Normal – Playing within the Normal Consistency Range!
Harmonizing the Articles
So, by writing 2 very different articles, am I contradicting myself? No. When playing superior opponents, you need to evaluate the situation point by point making necessary adjustments. If you start off wild and panicky and inconsistent, then remind yourself to play within your own game – just a normal game. If you start off playing normal and your opponent is relaxed, focused and ripping you apart, then you need to consider taking more risk. As you learn to know yourself, you will have a better understanding of which you should do – take more risk or play normal. It also depends on your opponent as well. But as I mentioned earlier, you need to evaluate and re-evaluate the situation point by point and make necessary adjustments.
Learn to Find the Balance