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Tactics: Become a Success by Failing

By regularly failing, you can be a success...

by Greg Letts - an Australian state coach, an International Umpire and one of the top ranked players in his country.

Nothing succeeds like success - that's how the saying goes. But today I'd like to argue instead that nothing succeeds like failure in improving your table tennis! Don't get me wrong, success is important. If you never succeeded in table tennis, you would obviously be a failure. But by regularly failing, you can be a success! Confused? Read on, and I'll explain what I'm talking about.

The Downside of Success

Human beings make mistakes - it's a fact of life. And for most of that life we are taught that success is good, and failure is bad. This leads many of us to avoid failing at all costs - whether because we don't want to look bad or hate making mistakes. But in doing so we may be making an even bigger mistake - missing out on the valuable information that failure can give us.

When training in table tennis, imagine that you are doing a drill such as forehand looping to your training partner's block, and you never made a mistake during the whole session. What could that tell us? Probably that you are either world champion material, or that you are hitting the ball so softly and slowly that it is almost impossible to miss. How helpful is that training going to be when you step out on court for a match? Not very, I would think. You are not working hard enough or close enough to match conditions for the drill to be of any real benefit.

The Role of Failure in Table Tennis Training

But how can you tell if you are working hard enough? This is where failure is important. Making mistakes when doing a drill will tell you that you are under enough pressure to require concentration and effort to succeed. It is this concentration and effort that you need in order to improve. So you can see that in order to be the best you can be, you will need to fail sometimes and make a mistake when you are training.

A mistake during training or even during a match should be able to teach you or remind you of something important. It might be showing that your technique is still a bit shaky and requires more work on grooving it in, or that you lose your form as you get tired, or even that your shot selection or placement could use some improvement. Spend a moment or two after making an error to consider what went wrong and what you need to do right to prevent that mistake from happening again. Then make sure that you do it right in the future.

Success vs Failure

Having said all that, let's get down to the nitty gritty - how often should you succeed for every mistake that you make? It's a bit of a toughie - I don't know if anyone has done any studies of the subject in table tennis. But here's some of my thoughts on the subject.

  • You should be succeeding more often than you fail. You need to groove good technique on your strokes, so you want to be performing them correctly most of the time. If you are making more mistakes than successful shots you might just be grooving the wrong form! I'd suggest a success to failure rate of at least 70%-80% - maybe even higher.

  • You want to succeed often enough to feel encouraged and motivated. Too much failure can be a bit dispiriting, so make sure you are getting it right often enough to keep wanting to train.

  • The drill should be hard enough to have to keep your concentration high and your technique solid in order to succeed. If your mind can wander or your technique can get sloppy and you still aren't making mistakes, you aren't working hard enough - get your opponent to hit harder, spin the ball more, or put it further away from you to force you to put the effort in. This way you are rewarded for good concentration and good technique, and penalised for lapses in concentration and poor form - just like in a match!

  • It's OK to fail - it tells you what your current limits are. Get comfortable with the idea that it is all right to make mistakes - in fact - it is essential. If you never fail during a drill, how could you know how hard and fast you could really do it? Making mistakes in a drill shows you what your current boundaries are - and allows you to track whether you are pushing those limitations back on a regular basis.

  • Failure lets you choose the right tactics in a match. When you fail regularly in training, you can go into a match knowing what you can and cannot do. This knowledge is invaluable in deciding what are the best tactics for you that day - you can focus on making the most of your strengths, rather than trying to use a stroke that may actually be a weakness.

  • Champions fail too - in fact, they probably fail more than you do! When you are watching the best in the world in action, and looking at their amazing consistency and incredible shots that they can make, just remember that it is likely that they make more mistakes in training than you do! It's just that they learn from their mistakes, and are constantly pushing harder to improve what they can do. The feedback they get from their errors is invaluable to them in staying on top in the competitive world of top class table tennis.


OK, that's enough from me on the subject. Hopefully by now you've got a new perspective on failure in table tennis. So what are you waiting for? - get out there and miss!

Success in Table Tennis DVD

Image courtesy of ITTF.
© 2005-2022 Greg Letts

You may also read Greg's blog and purchase Australian TT videos from Greg's own website

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