Improvements and Losses

It has been 3 sessions with Ben now and about the same with Karl. I am basically a different animal on the table tennis table. My body position has changed my strokes have changed my play into the table has changed and my movement is...changing. Ben has broken me down and is building me back up. It has been massive ups, followed by a big down. It has left me more motivated than ever and with the thought in my head that I might just achieve my goals (as long as I relax a bit).

The first thing I have noticed about my sessions is that everything I was doing is wrong. Yes, I was hitting the ball. Yes, I was winning some games. And yes, I was improving. The problem was I was on a path to becoming one of those guys who reaches a ceiling. I wasn't building strong enough foundations I had skipped bits or I had learnt them wrong. Already, I have bad habits which need correcting quickly if I am to become the player I want to become. Sometimes it feels like a disappointment. I almost wish I had met Ben on day 1 of the project so he could mould me like Plasticine but sometimes my techniques and skills I have learnt in the previous 5 months have come in handy. I can at least hit the ball (which I couldn't at first) and under training conditions I can do it fairly regularly. Likewise, I can chop and serve in a fashion. They all need improving but I am not completely broken.

The first improvement has come in my overall stroke. Its quicker and broader. I have more speed on the ball than I ever did before. My movement is improving, particularly in drills. I am still lacking in match play where too much information is being processed and I have a tendency to freeze or make unforced errors. The drills I have done have focused, solely, on these basics. A lot of it is movement based so I can make the transition from either forehand to backhand or be in the correct position for forehands all over the table. Ben will often play a backhand down the line, for example, then a forehand out wide. Likewise, I can get drills whereby I do forehands on three different positions on the table. The hardest movement, I have found, is going around the corner of the table on the forehand then getting to a forehand on the opposite side of the table from that position. All these movements are quick side steps. My problem is I will often push off the wrong foot and drag the other foot which means half my body is slightly left behind and I cannot produce the shot I want properly. My other problem is the short stroke production. My hunger to get to the next ball can lead me to cut corners and produce a reduced stroke in order to take myself one step ahead in the game. This means Ben has been spending a lot of time trying to get me to both relax and take time over each shot. Many of the drills Ben has been doing with me can be seen in the video below as well as some others that may come up in the future. (Drills I have done with Ben (or Karl) as named on video: FH Counterattack, BH Counterattack, BH Topspin, FH Topspin, Deep Push, Push to FH Topsin Attack (Push and Attack), BH-FH Topspin Alternately, BH-FH Counterattack 2x2, FH Topsin from 2 points on FH side, FH Counterattack from 3 Points, BH-FH Topsin from BH Side, Falkenburg, BH-BH-FH, Various Drills into Free Play (not 100% but we've definitely done a few)). Remember this has been done over three main sessions so I am not at this level of performance but the basics are getting there.

After my second session with Ben and about my fourth with Karl, I was feeling positive. Like a player born again. Wiping away 6 months of self taught table tennis into a world of elite table tennis with solid foundations. However, being born again means you need to walk, talk, run and learn to hit a ball with a small bat. There lay my issues. Sometimes, I look like a pro, smashing topspin loops into Ben's bat with the regularity of a seasoned Vet. Other times I am quite literally a cat with a table tennis bat stuck to its forehead while a person taps slow balls in it's direction. It doesn't matter that the cat holds the bat it doesn't mean it will hit anything. Although long winded metaphors may have highlighted my inadequacy to me. I chose to ignore that as I headed into my first competition since I had, had any coaching. The home club championships.

The tournament was split into groups of 3 plus doubles matches afterwards. Singles, for me, was what it was all about. I have to be honest, I have always hated club championships. It is a single event, on a single day whereby all your peers are around and therefore remember it forever. In athletics I once fell at a club championships and literally, to this day, get reminded of it. Therefore, whenever I do them I feel added performance anxiety. I definitely approached this tournament with more anxiety than I have felt at any previous tournament. The club champs factor combined with the idea of "impressing" my peers and doing my coaches proud meant I took the wrong attitude into the event. It was all a bit too much if I am being honest. I remember literally thinking that in my second match at a game down. I thought this isn't enjoyable I actually want to leave. I have never felt that before in competition. I have never unfocused so much that, that thought has crossed my mind during a match.

The first game was an expected loss. The guy I was playing was at a higher level than me and has beat me regularly. Therefore, I approached it with a nothing to lose mentality. Yet, I was still disappointed in the first and second sets. I was not playing with conviction. I was doing many of the right things and moving in the correct ways but I always had the niggling thought that I might do it wrong. Therefore, every shot was made with a little bit held back. The third set was actually my least favourite. I got him to 11-8 on the score board but I did it by cheating myself. I reverted to old habits I played shots I would never usually do and basically failed to do things correctly. It was a performance overall that I left feeling that I could do so much better.

The second game was, in my head, the game where I would finally show how far I had come. This guy was a classic awkward, defensive player. He was a "ceiling" player. He beat me in most games but I knew he wasn't improving and I was finally at a point where I could feasibly beat him. He has some advantages compared to the usual "ceiling" player in that he is much younger and more mobile, he is also very tall. It probably puts him at a slightly higher level than some of the other players of his type. I was obviously still very nervous at this point. The manner of the first loss has dented my confidence and the final set had actually upset the balance whereby I was trying to work out if I would carry on playing the way I had been taught or go for the old habits and cheat myself into some more points. I effectively did neither. I lost composure, I thought too long and hard about every shot I did. I served into the net, I missed the ball and I lost the ability to play topspin. I took perhaps 12 points across 3 games. I never looked like winning. In fact I looked angry, frustrated and embarrassed. I was.

Everyone knew I was angry, but it was hard to explain that I was angry at myself and angry at letting down the hard work that had been put into me over the past 2 weeks. I was upset at not being able to show there was actually a half decent table tennis player within me. I didn't want to be there at all. However, I still had a doubles game to play. We lost it over 5 sets. It is unlike me to want a match to be over but this one I was just looking to go home. We, virtually, accidentally won 2 games. I played with my mind on other things. I was still mulling over the singles match. My head wasn't in the game it was in the games before.

I left as soon as the ball hit the table. I didn't speak to anyone I just got out of there. I don't like to stay around after matches anyway as I am always looking to chill out after competition. However, this one was one of the worst. I sent both Ben and Karl texts to tell them I was sorry and that I would come back better. It took me an hour or so but once I was calmed down I thought about the tournament and realised it might be the best thing for me. It made me realise I need to relax, I need to work harder and I know that when I start doing the right things consistently I will beat these people. Relaxation is the key and sometimes losses can be the best thing an athlete can do, I just don't want to make a habit of it. I think this tournament also came a bit too soon. Even another session on with Ben I feel like I have made progress and have started to eradicate old habits that little bit more. However, even recent sessions have had mistakes that have caused losses. I have changed my serves so I have served into the net a little more. I have been trying to lift the ball too much so it has gone over the table. I have misjudged serves so I have lifted too much or not enough. Currently in match play I have 4 shots - 2 bad ones, 1 perfect one and 1 that is just about alright. This is getting better but it will take more time and more drills.


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