Recently I decided to try a new rubber sheet on my racket. To be honest I wasn’t really dissatisfied with the old one, I just wanted to find something a little less expensive. The new rubber turned out to be a little softer and the extended dwell time afforded me a little more spin, but the feel was different, and a few shot types seemed trickier.
I adapted quickly enough though and a few weeks later I faced a competitive opponent I had beaten consistently in the past. I lost three consecutive matches all due to one shot type–a short no spin serve to the middle of the table. I tried using the add spin-energy stroke mechanism I’d learned, but I kept popping the ball up. My opponent crushed me.
I wrote to Donn Olsen mentioning my change of rubber and describing the problem I was having in response to this shot type:
“What you described is a lack of physical and mental skill,” he replied.
Is that all?!
He went on to comment on the possible contribution of my new rubber:
“No coach talks less about equipment than me. For serious play, changing rubber is a major commitment.”
So was it the changing that mattered more that the change?
“I do not know if you need more dwell time or not, nor the effect on ball speed, if any, from this rubber.
It was the “good luck” part scared me most. Was it that hard to change rubber? Did I need luck, or would a little more practice do?
I thought back to when I first began to play table tennis seriously. Joining a club, I befriended the designated “equipment hound”–a person who actually changed rubber and racket combinations on a weekly basis. Entranced by super-powers he would develop using some amazing new racket/rubber combination, he would retain the combination for a couple of days but inevitably he would become disenchanted when some vulnerability emerged. Then he would abandon the setup and continue his quest for that Holy Grail of ping pong–the magical combination of racket and rubber that could do everything well.
Each day he would arrive at the club, brandishing his latest Excalibur: “I can generate masses of spin with this setup!” he might proclaim. But a day later, “I can’t control soft shots. I’m going to change…”
"I can loop with this one but I can't block with it." "I can hit with it but I can't push with it." "I can block with it but it’s too fast to loop with." "It is a good backhand rubber, but not for the forehand." The variations were endless.
Years passed and his quest continued. I would rarely modify any component of my own equipment, but my friend remained committed to the constant experimentation his quest demanded. We’d been equal as players when I began, but I gradually improved adding techniques and skill, while he continued to draw sword after sword from the proverbial stone, falling behind in match play.
Finally, after testing hundreds of potential combinations the truth began to emerge: A single combination consistently produced superior results above all others. It was very easy to control, offering modest spin and moderate speed–a little bit of everything, but not too much of anything. It was clear that this was the equipment with which he played best, but there was disappointment– there were no superpowers at all. It was the end to a long romance.
* * *
Dismissing my reveries I put aside Donn’s email, ripped off my brand new rubber, and glued on the two old worn out sheets of my old faithful rubber. I went back to the club and beat my nemesis handily once again. Sure enough, I had magically regained skill on my response to that short no spin shot! I began to understand: The elusive skill was not in the rubber–It was a technique I had developed in the context of equipment I understood. It was not the perfect equipment. It was good because I knew how to use it!
And after that years-long search my friend’s magic racket had turned out to be–not Excalibur–but a wooden sword, easy to use and hard to hurt yourself with but with no special capabilities in battle. Its magical super-power was that it happened to be the easiest combination for him to adapt to in the brief duration of his attention span.
There is a value proposition to introducing any variable into the complex environment of spin and speed which characterizes our sport. Equipment is tremendously variable and important, but even more important is the ability to use your chosen equipment with familiarity. While principles of ball contact remain the same, each combination of racket and rubber requires subtly distinct mechanisms. Changing equipment implies a learning process, a myriad of adaptations to technique and feel which precede the comfort of a familiar weapon in the hand.