Coach Samson Dubina US National Team Coach 4x USATT Coach of the Year

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Tournament Tough in 20 Steps

Learn how to train your mind and body!

Tournament Tough in 20 Steps
-Written by ITTF Coach Samson Dubina
Prep work:       Set Goals
Setting goals is the first step in becoming tournament tough.  Goal setting should happen a few months prior to the tournament.  Write out your goal and post it in your training room.  With this goal in mind, next determine how to properly prepare to meet that goal – what you should be practicing, what changes you should be making, who you should be practicing with, how often you should be playing matches, what you need to do nutritionally, and what you need to do in physical preparation.  Be specific in regards to your target goal and be specific in regards to your preparation to meet that goal.
Prep work:       Know yourself
Reflect back to prior performances and ask yourself about what you did right and what you did wrong.  Make a plan and train for a couple months to fix your problems and strengthen your strengths.  If you can’t clearly remember, then watch for video clips and analyze the video. 
Prep work:       Prepare yourself
Now that you know what you need to do, spend the time before the event preparing.  Months before the event, you will be making changes in your game as well as building up your physical strength and speed.  In the final week of the tournament, don’t make major changes but instead…  continue to give yourself gentle reminders on the right things to do.  Think back to previous successful tournament, and rest and train appropriately to what works best for you.  Some players need more practice (like myself) while other prefer more rest.  Some players need more sleep (I prefer 8-10 hours) while other prefer normal sleep.  Some players prefer more or less physical training. Some players prefer newer rubber (2-3 days old) while other prefer older rubber (1-2 month old).  By properly knowing yourself and preparing yourself, you will have the best chance for success. 
Prep work:       Know the tournament
Picture yourself walking in to the tournament.  Picture the tables, floor, walls, lighting, and all the other conditions.  Mentally put yourself in that moment.  If you have never been to that facility before, then ask around about the conditions and playing format.
Prep work:       Prepare for the tournament
Preparing for the tournament also involves playing in similar conditions.  If the lighting is dark, then consider turning off half the lights in your training room.  If the walls are white and the balls are white, then consider putting a white tarp or dropsheet behind your training partner while using white balls.  If you know that the tables are faster than normal, then train your short serves to be 3 bounces instead of 2 bounces.  Do as much as you can to train in the same conditions as you will be competing in during the tournament.
Prep work:       Know the opponent
About 1-2 weeks before the tournament, try to find out who you might possibly be playing against.  Many tournaments now have the player listing on   As you are driving to the table tennis club to practice each night, spend a few minutes reflecting on what those opponents did last time they played against you – how they served, how they received, strengths, weaknesses, tendencies.  If you don’t know your opponent, then try to watch youtube videos or ask a friend at the club who might know him.
Prep work:       Strategize for the opponent
Take out a pen and paper and write 10 points on how your opponent wants to win points.  Then write down 10 points on what you should do against him.
Prep work:       Watch the opponent
At the tournament, spend time watching your opponent.  Even though you have a general strategy, this strategy might be drastically different if he has changed his playing style.  See if he plays differently than before, see if he has any new serves, see if you can notice any additional strengths and weaknesses than you previously noticed.
Prep work:       Know who to talk with
At tournaments, there are some players who are very negative – always complaining about something.  There are other players who are very encouraging.  These players want to help you prepare for a match, they also might coach you during the match, and they also might be able to give your comforting words after a match.  These are the types of players to hang around with at tournaments.  Attitudes are contagious.
Game:             Returning Short Serves with variation
The most important thing in serve return is to return the ball onto the table.  Generally, the safest way to return short serves is with a controlled push.  Once you are able to properly read the spin and return those serves, it is now time to return short serves with some variation.  There are 3 main ways to return short serves – with a flip, with a fast long push, and with a short push.  When flipping short serves, placement is the key.  With only about 5-6 feet to react to your flip, it will be very difficult for your opponent to properly react and stroke the ball if your placement is deceptive.  To flip, step forward quickly, let the ball rise to the peak or even drop very slightly, brush the ball up and forward like a mini-loop over the table, then prepare by moving back quickly into position.  To push long, step forward and push the ball quick off the bounce while following through the ball at least 8”.  When pushing long, quickness is the key – not ball speed.  By contacting the ball on the rise, you can take away the reaction time from your opponent while keeping it low and spinny.  To push short, still you will step forward, stop your body movement, and take the ball on the rise.  Instead of pushing deep though the ball, you will almost completely stop your swing and follow through about 2”.  After pushing short, then return back quickly to loop.  If your opponent receives short back, then be ready to move forward again in order to push or flip.
Game:             Returning Medium serves with variation
Many players try to serve short, but many of their serves are actually medium-long.  There are 2 options to returning a medium long serve – push or loop.  If you choose to push, realize that it is very difficult to push short from a medium long serve; so you will likely be forced to push long.  With this long push, focus on placement.  A better option would be to loop this serve.  Your opponent probably thought that his serve was short.  If you are able to loop the serve, then he will likely be very surprised and very disgusted by poor serve.  If his serve is backspin, then let the ball drop slightly off the end of the table, while spinny up and slightly forward with an open angle.  If his serve is no-spin, sidespin, or topspin, then loop over the table with a slightly more closed racket.  When looping the medium long serve, you should be focusing on spin while keeping the ball low and deep with good placement.
Game:             Returning long serves with variation
No matter how deceptive or fast your hit is, it must return on the table.  In order to win a match, it is essential that you return their serves with at least 80-95% accuracy.  If you are more accurate than 95%, then you can feel comfortable going for more risk with spin variation, speed variation, placement, and deception.   When returning long serves, your most important duty is to apply spin.  Spin allows you to control the ball.  All world-class players loop or chop all long serves.  You will never see a top player blocking a long serve.  In order to chop or a loop a long serve, give yourself plenty of distance from the table (about a full arm-length).  When you are surprised by the long serve, quickly move into position, allow the ball to come fairly deep, and spin the ball with a loop or chop.  Unless you have very good spin on your loops, it is very difficult to loop a spinny serve off-the-bounce.
Game:             Relying on your strengths
Each player must have 1-2 very strong points that he can count on to win points…  possibly a good serve, a powerful smash, or a spinny loop.  Try to develop some good serves and returns that best setup your strength. 
Game:             Dealing with your weaknesses
You must first understand your weak points.  Once you understand your weak points, you need to improve them and be willing to sometimes cover them up.  For example, if your backhand loop against push is a weak point, what can you do?  Well, you can develop a good push with your backhand to keep you in the point.  Or, you could develop strong footwork so that you can pivot and play a forehand from the backhand side.  Or, you could develop a backhand loop.  Think about all of your weak points and assume that your opponents will know you weak points.  Play on your opponents playing to your weak points and have a plan on what to do.
Game:             Have multiple serve weapons
With a very similar motion, it is important that you be able to produce various spins and serve to various locations.  Try to have only 1-2 main serves that you use with 10-15 possible variations.  You should also spend time practicing your attack after you serve.  You should understand the ins and outs of what your opponent can possibly do with each of your serves.
Game:             Have multiple attack weapons
When looping, flipping, or smashing, it is essential that you be able to impart various spins on the ball, hit with various speeds, and target various locations.  With a good change of pace, you can keep the winning momentum.  It is also important to be able to adjust your loop to various spins.  You must be able to loop against a light push, heavy push, flip, block, and many other types of balls.  In order to properly do this, your loop must be adjustable and flexible.
Game:             Have a solid, consistent defense
When you are in a defensive position like pushing or blocking or chopping you must remain consistent and be able to lengthen the rally.  If you are able to block back 4-5 of your opponent’s loops, then you have a very good chance to win the point.  With defense…   consistency and placement are the 2 keys.
Mental:                       Enjoy the competition
In the fifth game, you developed an early 9-3 lead.  With some momentum, your opponent was able to come back and the score is now 9-9.  How do you feel?  Are you afraid?  Afraid of what others might think?  Afraid of losing rating points?  Afraid of being eliminated from the tournament?  Champions love the competition and love the feeling of a good exciting game.  You will learn to play without fear when you learn to enjoy the competition instead of fear the competition.
Mental:                       Overcome Obstacles
Obstacles are a major part of every tournament.  You forgot to bring your tt shoes!  Ouch!  You are getting called as having an illegal serve!  Ouch!  You haven’t eaten lunch and your stomach is growling!  Ouch!  There are problems that all players must face.  Before going to the tournament, try to deal with these anticipated problems.  Realize that at the tournament there will be some surprises.  At that point, it isn’t a matter of what happened, it’s a matter of how you deal with what happened.
Post-Game:     Reflection Time
After the tournament has concluded, you need to spend a couple hours thinking back to each match.  Think deeply about what you did right and what you did wrong.  Think back to 1 month prior to the tournament.  If you could prepare for that tournament again, what would you do differently?  Your answer should determine how you train this month in preparation for the next tournament.

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