Recently our club had the good fortune of hosting former world champion Jiang Jialing and two members of the women’s Chinese National Team. In awe we watched demonstrations of their drills – loop versus block, dancing footwork across the baseline – and then as a finale, these champions each played a single game with one of our players.
Unsurprisingly, our top players floundered. While our best could hit the ball just as hard as these champions, in the games played, they simply never had the opportunity. They were constantly off balance, lunging for difficult shots. Even when they got off a reasonable offensive shot, they were unprepared for the block that inevitably came back.
Over the next weeks, I replayed those games in my mind many times. Why couldn’t our players initiate offense? I became convinced that the dominance displayed in these games was not due to the wonderful offensive shots the visitors used to finish points, it was in their Control shots – those over-the-table shots, and especially short serve receives. These low, well placed shots prevented our players from generating effective offense, and often elicited poorly placed high responses, easy opportunities for their own elegant winners.
How often do you see club players practice serve receive? We love to loop and counter loop. We practice offense against underspin. Sometimes you’ll see diligent players practice “the short game”, nudging the ball back and forth just over the net. Once in a while you’ll even see a club player practicing service return: A practice partner will serve an array of service types; short, long, half-long; underspin, no-spin, topspin; to the forehand, backhand, and crossover point. The receiver will push some over short, add underspin to some, attack some with over-the-table offensive shots, or loop from off the table.
But even in the demonstrations of visiting high level competitors, it’s almost always those sexy loops and drives on display.
So I asked coach Donn Olsen, who I knew had studied the Chinese National Team in real practice, how to go about improving serve receive and the short game. I wanted some drills and a general approach to what appeared a very complex domain. He politely side-stepped my question. “Do it just like any other circumstance: one shot type at a time.”
Used to long detailed responses to my questions I pondered his terse reply for a day or two, and it soon became clear that I was naively misunderstanding the problem. We talk about the short game as if it were just one kind of shot – “pushing” – but the short game is not a type of shot; it’s dozens of possible shot types.
Against a short underspin to the forehand you might reduce speed and drop the ball just over the net; or you might add heavy underspin to deter a forceful response; you could place a no spin ball to a corner, or perhaps add sidespin for deception. That’s not to mention the options of flipping a topspin or smashing a high ball.
And those are just some of the options for responding to only one spin type from only one location!
When I thought about all the potential placements, spins and speeds of the opponent’s oncoming over-the-table shots, and the variety of potential shot responses, and of the physical, mental and emotional skills needed to create quality responses to all of these circumstances, the magnitude of the endeavor dawned on me for the first time.
Now I understood Donn’s response: To develop a short game effectively, first, we identify the discrete circumstances of placement, spin, and height of the oncoming ball. Then we must select a few from the many potential Control, Offensive Control, and Offensive shot type responses available to train.
Once we’ve selected those shot types – for each one we have to develop the appropriate racket angles and ball contact movements; then we must work on the mental skill – reading the spin and location of the oncoming ball early, plus deciding which shot type to use in context. Next we have to develop the movement necessary to gain the appropriate body-to-ball relationship. Finally we must train the quality of shot to a high level, focusing on the appropriate elements of shot effectiveness, speed, spin, placement, and deception.
When a single shot type response to a circumstance is mastered, it is time to choose a second shot type to build into a quality response. Each circumstance might have several shot types as optional responses. Once the player’s feature set has expanded to include a variety of high quality responses, then mental and emotional skill must be matured to support integrating the new skills into match play.
To develop a good short game, hundreds of hours of training lie ahead. Dozens of new shot types should be trained to the same level as that sexy cross-table counter loop we watch going back and forth so often in practice sessions.
Over-the-table training might not very entertaining to watch, but Donn assures me that the Chinese National Team dedicates more practice time to that domain than any other national team he’s witnessed. Maybe that’s why they’re the best.