We’re all familiar with well-prepared players who at some critical point in matches appear to spontaneously lose confidence. We call it “choking.” We attempt to reassure players: “You can do it! All you have to do is believe in yourself!” But while confidence is undoubtedly an integral component of success, alone it does not assure success. Unsupported by ability, preparation, and judgment, confidence is mere bravado, an unsubstantiated belief in an unlikely success.
Adrift in the mid Pacific, on the Big Island of Hawaii, our table tennis club has grown over the last two decades, from a core of largely self-taught players, into a robust club with enthusiastic children and adults of ages eight through eighty. Recently, Len Winkler, a regionally certified USATT coach moved to the far side of our island, and introduced us to the book PATT: A Principles Approach to Table Tennis, the brainchild of Donn Olsen. With his collaborator Kyongsook Kim, Donn has created a language and mode of thinking about table tennis, which offers structure to the complexity of the sport. In our efforts to guide up-and-coming youth and to improve our players, we have attempted to implement the guiding principles of PATT. The following are essays that have sprung from our efforts.
Stephen Freedman offers table tennis coaching both privately at his Kurtistown residence, or at the Boys and Girls Club of Hilo. Trained and mentored very extensively by the author and originator of PATT -- A Principles Approach to Table Tennis he offers an individualized coaching plan to support development and performance for adults and children, individually or in groups.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (808)966-8943.
This morning I woke up with a hangover. Although it didn’t involve waking up in a stranger’s bed with a new tattoo, I did open my eyes with almost complete amnesia about how to play table tennis. No, I don’t drink, and I didn’t even stay out late last night. I have a hangover from a particularly punishing session of table tennis training! I spent hours yesterday repeating strokes, “grooving” them, and perfecting footwork. I went home with my sore shoulder, aching legs,and a buzzing in my brain and awoke feeling just as bad as if I’d been ‘out on a bender’ the night before.
It’s deuce in game seven, the finals of the biggest tournament of your life. You’ve never been in this position before. Do you play the way you played to get here, or do you play it safe? If your opponent is a higher level player than you, do you ‘go for broke’; if you’re on the brink of losing to someone you expect to beat, do you play conservatively and await an error?
While serving itself initiates each rally, and is thus deserving of great attention and practice, returning that serve is in many ways more challenging because the conditions of your shot attempt are completely directed by your opponent. Returning service is arguably the most important, challenging and unique opportunity in the game of table tennis.
In his masterpiece the Republic, Plato described a special category of Forms or Ideas of existence. They were idealized, ethereal forms of all things humans perceive – a pantheon aside from common human experience – to which all terrestrial mimicry aspired. Through his character, Socrates, Plato suggested that these Forms were the only true objects worthy of study, providing us with genuine, absolute knowledge.
There is a great temptation to coach table tennis from this absolutist point of view, systematically adding attributes to players’ games –
Leo Tolstoy begins his epic novel Anna Karenina proclaiming:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy was suggesting that for families to be happy, a number of components need to be in place: Good relationships, good health, sufficient economic resources, living in a peaceful time etc. However, if any single component is missing, all else might destabilize.
In table tennis we could say: All successful shots are alike; each failing shot fails in its own unique way.
Aargh! At 3 a.m. this morning it finally crystallized for me. I have completely misunderstood the physics of looping underspin. No, I won’t even call it “looping: underspin anymore! I have misunderstood that stroke term also. I’ll call it “responding” to underspin. After years of playing this game, struggling to understand the various ways a racket causes outcomes – even executing shots at a reasonable level, compared to those around me – I completely misunderstood what I was doing. How could this happen?!
During my initiation into the “secrets” of addressing the “South Pole” (bottom of the ball) to create serious underspin on service, I had learned to initiate forward momentum as a result of friction applied by the falling ball on a nearly horizontal racket. Could I spin that ball?! After a few thousand repetitions I could bounce the ball over the net and kick it back to myself. A few thousand more and I could create a second bounce on the far left of the table beside the net, which would leap off the far right of the table. Soon I could even generate a leaping corkscrew.
Imagine a ball politely obeying the laws of gravity, dropping toward the ground while a table tennis racket, angled forward, streaks through the air, attempting to make contact with the top of that ball! How could it have escaped me for all these years that executing a loop drive against topspin would require contacting the oncoming ball near the top of the bounce?! Yet somehow that principle had escaped me.
In his best-selling book The Blind Watchmaker, renowned evolutionist, Richard Dawkins acknowledged that, if he hadn’t understood the principles of evolution by natural selection, he would have had to believe in ‘Intelligent Design’ – the suggestion that a god had created the wonderful complexities of life he witnessed in his studies. This comment reflects as much upon the amazing diversity of life, as on the explanatory power of the principles of natural selection described by Charles Darwin.