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Question: What do I need to do so I can consistently hit and loop winners in games the way I can in practice?

Coach Larry Hodges: There are two key differences between practice and games: psychological and variation.

Psychologically, there is little pressure in practice, and so players are loose, both mentally and physically. However, once a game begins, its very easy to get nervous and tighten up. RELAX! Of course, thats easier said than done, especially in a tournament or league. Just remember that practice games are just that practice. Winning, losing, it doesnt really matter. Whats important is what you learn from practice, so use practice games to build up your mental game. Before the point begins, blank out your mind, and just let the shots happen. (Between points is when you think about tactics; once the point begins, you have to just let them happen naturally.) Dont worry about winning or losing practice games; just play your game until it becomes comfortable. Then do the same in tournaments or leagues. Of course, you may have to play a few tournaments or league matches to get used to playing under pressure, but the more you play, the more you become tournament tough, and able to do in games (practice, tournaments or leagues) what you can do in practice.

Keep in mind that you have your best chance of winning a game if you dont worry about winning the game. If your goal is play your best, you will maximize your chances of winning.

There is often much less variation in practice than in a game. Most practice drills are somewhat predictable, and so you get balls you are comfortable with. For example, you might do a drill where you serve backspin, your opponent pushes it back to your backhand, and you loop (forehand or backhand). The range of variation in the pushes youll be looping (amount of spin, speed, height, depth and placement) may be rather small. Drills like this are good to develop your shots, as are pattern drills where you practice footwork.

But in a game, when you serve backspin, your opponents pushes will vary more. He may push to your forehand, or short, or he may even attack the push. He may vary the spin more. So you usually have to deal with a lot more variation in a game than in practice, and so its more difficult to prepare for or react to the many different returns.

How to you learn to react to variation in games? By incorporating that variation into your practice routines. Do drills where your opponent varies his returns. For example, the drill might be you serve backspin, your partner pushes deep anywhere, and you loop. Or your partner may have the choice of pushing short to the forehand or long to the backhand. Or he may just push anywhere, long or short. When you are comfortable against all these, then you may go for bust, and have your partner return serves any way he wants, including attacking them. (Serve short so he cant loop, and serve low so he cant flip too effectively.)

All drills can be turned into random drills that incorporate variation. For example, instead of hitting forehand to forehand (or forehand loop to block), have your practice partner randomly move you around on your forehand side. Or have your partner hit the ball randomly to your forehand or backhand (or to anywhere on the table), and you return each shot to one spot. Or do drills that combine variation with pattern play. For example, your partner may alternate between one shot to your backhand, and one random shot that goes anywhere.

Ultimately, to play in games as well as you play in practice, you need to play lots of games but only after you have really practiced against variable shots in practice.