DIY Table Tennis

higher level

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, 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.

I play in the Bolton Premier Division and the Bury First Division, both are a damn good standard and this season I was hoping for around a 50% average across the leagues. I would class this as a huge success. It's steady improvement from starting out in Division Three around 10 years ago and is also despite recent injury setbacks (shoulder, forearm, calf, brain!).

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 :)

It's not for want of trying to be coached .. I've had a bit of coaching in the past, I thought that being coached would make me a far better player, but I quickly realised that hours of coaching goes straight out the window in a competitive environment. The ball doesn't come back in the same place every time, with the same speed and spin .. it can come back anywhere. Trying to repeat your coaching in a match play environment would mean getting battered even more so than I do now. A wise man once said to me "You can have all the best coaching in the world but ultimately when the pressure is on you revert back to your own game and your own shots because it's what you know, it's what's safe" which is likely why sometimes I run around the court like a lunatic chopping balls when every cell in my brain is screaming "STOP chopping it! It's the wrong shot!!" perhaps it comes out verbally with a little more panache during the game though ;)

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.

I believe, in the very beginning of your journey into Table Tennis it can be very beneficial, it can create fantastic young players who go on to become stars of the future, case in point might be Bethany Farnworth or perhaps more so Amirul Hussain, he has burst onto the scene, straight into the Bolton Premier division at 10 years old and turning the tables on some of Boltons' most distinguished players; Paul Cichelli, Barry Elliot, Fred Turban, Paul Brandwood among many others. Hours and hours of coaching, young minds and bodies that are eager to learn.
Coaching at their age is likely at its most beneficial, the players are young and can absorb the advice of their mentors like a sponge but also have the speed and more importantly possess fully able bodies with which to move their feet and get to the ball again and again. How youth is truly wasted on the young!

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.

Ultimately I think coaching could in fact be detrimental to your game, you could actually be changing the parts of your game which are unique to you and which is why you beat certain players but may always lose to others.

If we all played the same coached way it would be such a boring game :)

Brett Haslam

Author: via Bolton Table Tennis League
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