I asked a very open question recently to a few table tennis friends: Do you think it is possible to become a better TT player without coaching? If so, how?
Subconsciously, I guess this was a desperate lunge for ideas in the middle of what has turned out to be a difficult season. In stark terms, I have gone from being a 63% player in Division Three to a 5% player in Division Two; from great scalps including Matthew Brown, James Young, Richard Whittleworth and Jeff Saunders to humbling experiences against Matthew Kennedy, Brian Greenhalgh and Max Brooks.
The real problem was time. No time to practise, therefore no time for coaching (be it casually or officially). I had become – as many players are – the bloke that turns up for the weekly match only. There was no working on weaknesses, technique or strategy in between. And I’ve always been aware that my unorthodox style – a stuttering amalgam stolen from different sources – needs ironing out or at least pairing up with a better understanding of the game’s central tenets.
The many voices that came back were mixed:
John Barker – “Yes, but without feedback it’d be easy to pick up bad habits and incorrect technique.”
Paul Cicchelli – “Well, Desmond Douglas apparently taught himself to play. My personal answer is ‘No’ [however]. The book Bounce by Matthew Syed…touches on the subject. There is only so far you can get with talent without somebody driving you technically, emotionally and motivationally.”
Joe Ashton – “Practice, getting a bat that suits you and competitive games [are fundamental].”
John Rothwell – “No. I’m living proof!” (2014/15 Div Three 51%, 2015/16 Div Two 11%)
Kirit Chauhan – “Yes, practising with better players will improve your game.”
Brett Haslam – “Yes, play people better than yourself, play above your standard in the league and accept that for at least a season you will lose…a lot!”
Ray Isherwood (Div One) – “More table time at least. Don’t forget before my lessons I was Division Four and then I started to go to the Hilton Centre 3-4 times a week. Lessons will improve you 100%.”
Barker regularly studies the website, ttedge.com. He also points to the atypical performances of John Nuttall (Div Two 83%) – a tennis player who has successfully adapted his racquet skills to the ‘small screen’ with no help whatsoever.
The general consensus seems to be “play at a higher level”, but aren’t the altruistic souls on the other side of this equation risking getting worse?
*UPDATE 27/12/2015 - Match Secretary
Initially, after receiving your text I presumed you were simply asking a question about your own game and how you could maybe improve. What I didn't know was that it would become a news story. So, after giving it some thought it occurred to me that this goes alot deeper than my initial brief response through SMS.
So what's the secret? Have I got better through hundreds of hours of coaching? Absolutely not.
I started off with absolutely no backhand shot other than the ability to chop the ball, so much so that I actually played with Anti-Spin on my backhand for a few years, but the better players worked this out quite quickly and it forced me to change to a normal rubber and develop a backhand topspin shot, this didn't come through coaching .. this came from hours of practise in the Hilton Centre and losing .. a lot! Injury forced me to favour my backhand and now I consider it to be my best shot and even envied by some; "There are some stroke that I would like to do or have like Brett's backhand" Fred Turban Sept 2015. I'd gladly trade Freds all round game and consistency for the ability to play a good shot now and again :)
I'm not saying it is useless, it may provide you with the basic tools, but to me it can never replace practise or actually playing better players.
Over the years I've played against far better, faster and more consistent players which in turn has made me a better and faster player (arguably still far too inconsistent). The better players have a lot more time on the ball, they anticipate where the ball will be returned and are ready for your killer shots, often returning them with killer shots of their own (which hurts even more). It's not all about speed and spin, it's about knowledge and time and to me you can only gain this by playing and losing to a variety of better players.
If we all played the same coached way it would be such a boring game :)