Overcoming Problems

Photo of Paul Drinkhall

What problems will Paul Drinkhall of England have to overcome on his way to the top?

Photo by: PZTS – Ireneus Stosik , courtesy www.ittf.com

In this article I'm going to write about a topic that just about everybody who plays table tennis is going to run into sooner or later - problems and how to overcome them. No matter what the difficulty, following a few simple steps can help make those mountains look a bit more like molehills again. In essence, these steps can be boiled down to 4 simple rules:
  1. Identify the problem
  2. Understand the consequences of the problem
  3. Deal with the problem
  4. Evaluate the success of your solutions

As an example, I'll work through some of the problems I had when preparing for the 2004 Australian National Championships.

Step 1 - Identify the Problem

The first step is to make sure that you know exactly what the problem is. After all, you don't want to find that you've come up with the right solution for the wrong problem! Take the time to think it over, and maybe talk with a friend or two just to make sure that there really is a problem - maybe it will look differently from another perspective.

My problems:

I was diagnosed with Type-B lymphatic cancer in August 2003, an aggressive form of cancer. The treatment involved chemotherapy and radiotherapy, both of which have several potential side effects, including nausea during the treatment and fatigue for an extended period of time (anywhere up to a year or two) afterwards. Provided everything went OK, I would finish treatment in late January 2004 and would be left with approximately 6 months to prepare for the Nationals in July 2004.

The two most relevant problems were:

  1. I would be likely to be quite ill during chemotherapy, and more tired than usual during the radiotherapy treatment.
  2. Once my treatment was over, I would be likely to experience some degree of fatigue and decreased recovery ability for anywhere up to the next year or two.


Step 2 - Understand the Full Consequences of the Problem

Assuming that you have got a proper grip on the problem, you should then stop and think awhile about what the full consequences of the problem are likely to be. Don't rush this step, and don't be afraid to think about things for a while and then come back and take another look a few days later, after your subconscious has had a chance to mull over the problem. Think laterally if you can, as there can sometimes be some obscure consequences as well as the obvious ones!

Consequences of my problems:

  1. I would find it difficult to train at all during the time of my treatment, a period starting in October 2003 and ending in late January 2004. As a result my playing level was likely to decrease during this time.
  2. I would be unlikely to be able to train hard in the 6 months leading up to the Nationals, due to fatigue and decreased recovery ability. I would find it difficult to complete enough hours of training to lift my game to the required standard.
  3. At the Nationals, I would be playing the equivalent of 9 best of 5 matches per day for the first 2 days, then 6 best of 5 matches for the next day, before the individual events started on day 4. This would affect my ability to play good table tennis towards the end of each day, and also towards the end of the tournament as I got progressively more tired.

Step 3 - Deal With the Problem

By this stage you should have a clear idea of what the problem is, and what exactly are the effects you are going to face. Now it's time to start looking for solutions to your situation. Again, take your time and have a good long think about possible answers. Ask your coach or fellow players for advice, if possible - a fresh perspective can sometimes spot something that you have missed. List every idea that seems promising - no matter how off-beat or silly. Sometimes the best solution is not the most obvious one.

Can You Solve It?

Some problems can be solved and then forgotten about, whilst others may not be dealt with so easily or permanently. If you have a problem that seems to have a promising looking solution, make sure that you check that the solution does not cause problems of its own. An example of this would be a player who has a weakness on his backhand side, which he trains so hard to fix that he neglects the rest of his game.

A good solution will often completely resolve a particular problem - although you may want to check from time to time that the problem has not come back.

But what if you have a problem that cannot be made to go away, or at the very least will take several months to fix? In that case you had better look for ways to adjust to and work around the problem instead. Once you have accepted that the problem is here to stay for the time being, you mind will be free to look for ways to cope with the situation. Again, be wary of finding adjustments that have problems of their own - such as an aging player whose reflexes are slowing down who might play further from the table to give him more time to react - but this will also mean that he has to cover more of the court, which might be a problem as well.

Solutions to my problem:

This particular problem had no solution, as I had to do the treatment and suffer the effects. Once I had accepted this, I was able to search for ways to work around the problem instead. The workarounds that I came up with were as follows:

  1. Although a natural defender, I had been playing for the preceding six months as a speed glueing attacker due to the excess weight I was carrying (a separate problem!). I decided to continue to do so until my treatment had finished, since this would allow me to keep the points relatively short and make them less taxing on my system.
  2. I admitted that training was likely to be difficult during treatment, and informed my practice partner that I may need to miss some sessions on short notice. This allowed me to only play when I felt physically capable. I also cut down the length of the training sessions and focused more on technique than the physical aspects. Finally, I made sure that I used my training time as efficiently as possible, to get as much useful training done as I could in the limited time I had available.
  3. Once my treatment was over, I slowly increased the length of my training sessions, whilst monitoring my overall physical state to make sure that I didn't overtrain. I maintained my focus on efficiency of training and working on technique, since I didn't have the reserves to do much physical training.
  4. I adapted my style to match my physical limitations. To begin with, I maintained my speed glued attacking style, since it kept the points short. Once I felt my physical fitness could hold up to several matches in a row, I returned to my defensive style, and carefully monitored my physical state after each match. If I got too tired, I always had the option to return to attacking in the next match.
  5. I conserved my energy when playing wherever possible, avoiding lengthy warm up routines or too much wandering around the arena.
  6. I adjusted my diet, using extra supplementation to provide optimum nutrition without extra calories.
  7. I increased the amount of mental visualization I performed, to help compensate for the drop in the amount of actual table time I could handle.

Step 4 - Evaluate the Success of Your Solutions

Evaluating whether your solutions are successful or not should be done on an ongoing basis - don't wait until some predetermined time to say whether they worked or not. If things are going well, you may not need to change very much at all - maybe just a minor tweak or two. But if things are not happening the way you would like, the earlier you can recognize this, then the earlier you can overhaul your plans and hopefully move in the right direction. Think of it as a continuous feedback loop, with constant checking and corrections as long as the problem exists.

Evaluation of my solutions' success:

Most of my solutions worked reasonably well. One flaw I found was during the Nationals themselves, when I realized I had drastically underestimated the physical toll it would take on me. After the first two teams matches on the first day it was obvious I would not be able to continue to compete with my usual long-range defensive style.

In order to keep going, I adapted my style to use my medium pimples to hit more often, and use more strategies from my time as an attacker - such as 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th ball attacks. This meant I played a higher percentage of shorter points, which were less taxing on my body. I also attempted to stay closer to the table when chopping, and I used the medium pimples more often due to the better control when chopping nearer than usual to the table. This change in tactics allowed me to get through the next 2 days of competition and remain competitive (well, relatively!).


So that's it in a nutshell. There should hopefully be few problems that won't yield to this approach, when applied properly. If and when you've got a table tennis problem (I'm not qualified to solve your other ones!), just follow the four steps of Identifying, Understanding, Dealing, and Evaluating and you will soon be on the road to making progress with your game again.

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