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Plan to be Random

Planning some spontaneity in your table tennis training

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

If you are at all like me, you probably don't get to train for table tennis as much as you would like (or as much as you need!). So today I'd like to suggest an idea to help you get more out of the limited training time that you do have - using drills with random variations as part of your overall training plan.

What exactly is a random drill?

Good question. As far as I define it, a random drill is similar to a fixed drill (where the pattern of balls repeats), but includes the ability for one or both players to vary some aspect of the drill whenever he wishes. Examples include:

  • Stroke variation - such as:
    • Type of stroke - player A forehand blocks to player B's forehand topspin - player A can randomly loop the ball back to player B's forehand, while player B must continue to topspin.
    • Spin of stroke - player A pushes light chops to player B, who also pushes the ball back with light backspin. At random intervals player A will use a heavy chop to player B, who must continue to use light backspin.
    • Speed of stroke - player A forehand counterhits to player B's forehand topspin. Every so often player A will use a faster counterhit to try to catch player B off-guard.
  • Placement variation
    • Sideways placement - player A forehand blocks to player B's forehand loop, putting the ball in the middle of the forehand half. At random intervals player A will place the ball at player B's body, then go back to putting the ball in the middle of player B's forehand half.
    • Depth placement - player A forehand blocks to player B's forehand loop, putting the ball deep. On occasion player A will block the ball short near the net, but on the same line of play.

These variations can be used individually or in combination. There is also the alternative to return to the main pattern after the variation has been made, or to go to open play to finish the point. An example of the second type would be as follows:

Player A forehand chops to player B's forehand, who loops the ball back to player A's forehand. Every so often player A will attempt to counterloop player B's loop, and from this moment on the point is open for any stroke to be played. Once the point has been won, the next point begins back on the main pattern of forehand chop to forehand loop.

Sounds OK - but what's wrong with my usual fixed drills?

Another good question. After all, you do see many table tennis players training exclusively with fixed drills - maybe by doing some forehand looping from 2 positions against a block, or even the old reliable Falkenberg drill (1 BH, 1 FH from the BH side, 1 FH down the line, all to the opponent's BH). While these type of exercises (where you know where the next ball is going to be) are good for perfecting your technique and grooving your footwork, they do have some limitations as well.

  • Encourages lack of concentration - since you always know where the next ball in the sequence is going to be, it is easy to turn your brain off and go into automatic pilot. This can lead to sloppy technique and lazy footwork, which is something you don't want to be doing.
  • Can develop bad habits - such as moving straight to where you know the next ball is going, and getting ready earlier than you really should for the next ball. Do this in a match and you'll find your opponent changing direction on you, since you will have moved and telegraphed what shot you are about to play before he has hit the ball.
  • Doesn't simulate real match conditions - how many players have you seen that look great in the warmup but are a level lower in actual match play? Too many drills where you always know where the ball is going can contribute to this. You need to be able to make quick decisions and react accordingly (and correctly).

So why are random drills the answer?

I'm not saying that the use of random variations in drills is the one true solution to all of your training problems. But their use does have the following advantages over just using fixed drills:

  • You have to stay alert - because you are never quite sure where the next ball is going, you have to keep concentrating or else you are likely to make a mistake.
  • Decision making is involved - both players must concentrate on what is going on, the feeder on when to vary the routine, and the other player on when to react to the change. This helps cut down the boredom of fixed routines.
  • Helps catch sloppy technique - the random placement can be used to catch players who get a little sloppy with technique or lazy with their footwork. For example, hitting balls to a player's forehand and occasionally placing a ball down the backhand will catch out players who are preparing to hit their forehand too early, or not recovering back towards a neutral ready position.
  • More techniques are involved at the same time - very important to those of us short on training time. Depending on the random element used, several aspects of table tennis can be trained at once. A drill which uses placement of the ball to the player's general forehand, with occasional balls at his crossover point, will train his footwork, his forehand technique, and also his ability to recover to a neutral ready position as well as his ability to decide quickly and correctly whether to hit a forehand or backhand from the crossover point. A lot of extra training achieved by just changing the drill slightly!
  • Closer simulation of match play - if you don't have a lot of time to train, you probably don't get enough match play either. And simply playing matches all the time doesn't always allow you to do the necessary work required on the parts of your game that need it. Using random variations gives you the ability to train certain aspects of your game that require improvement, while still retaining the need for quick decision making under pressure - a pretty good deal all round!

© 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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