USA Table Tennis Hall of Famer and Olympian medalist Tahl Leibovitz sat down with the editors of True to share some tactics on how to gain an edge over your opponent.
Professional Table Tennis Player
You can read more about Tahl’s philosophy in his book, Ping Pong for Fighters.
A lot of players focus on themselves. In the match you really need to focus on your opponent instead of yourself. If you’re focusing on yourself you can do that in practice to improve your technique. But once the match comes, you have to really be able to focus on the other player and what they’re doing because that really determines what you’re going to do.
Table tennis is a game of deception. You have to deceive the player. You find out where somebody is weak, where somebody is strong. You’re figuring that out as you’re playing. Sometimes you do something and you just lose the point directly. Then you know—I can’t really do that again. It’s like touching a stove—I can’t do that again.
You have somebody who is really close to you so you feel that. You feel their frustration. You can feel when they’re confident. Always radiate self-confidence when you’re playing. Especially when you serve. People will see that. The serve is the most important stroke in table tennis. It determines exactly how the point is going to go.
If you’re winning a lot of points, you want to continue and keep playing. If you’re losing, you want to slow down. You might pick up the ball very slowly. You’re opponent might enjoy it if you’re playing really fast. In that case, if he’s a blocker, you play very slow, you take your time. If they’re a fast player you give them off-speed shots. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast. You don’t want them to get into a good exchange.
Some of the top players, some of them, they try to get pumped up, they run around a little bit, they try to motivate themselves. How you’re performing sometimes has to do with how you feel physically. Mentally. Sometimes you have to push yourself.
Sometimes it bothers the other player. It gets them out of their game. They’re like, “Why is this guy going so crazy?”
There’s a poem where Charles Bukowski talks about the secret of competition. He says really there isn’t any. And in a sense, I don’t know if there really is one. I think it’s a matter of having a lot of experiences. You need to take a lot of losses. It’s more about what not to do rather than what to do. There are so many things you can do that will take you right out of a match. A hundred things. There are probably three or four things you can do that will make you win a match.
Table tennis is 90% mental at the high level. You’re starting and stopping a lot. Sometimes there could be anxiety for the match, so your heart rate is very high and then you stop. Your heart rate comes down. Then it’s high. Then it comes down. If you’re thinking about the outcome, it can affect your heart rate, it can affect your nerves.
Try not to focus on the results. The most powerful thing is staying in the present moment. Once you’re in the past or in the future while you’re playing, it’s really hard to perform to the best of your ability. In 2006 I was playing at the para world championships and I was playing for a bronze medal and I was up 7-4 in the last game. I started thinking about the result and I lost that match.
There are two types of players—there’s being proactive and reactive. When you’re reactive, you’re really reacting to somebody, to what they’re doing. When you’re proactive, you’re doing something to cause a reaction. When you serve, if you contact the ball very low, the serve will go over the net very low and when it reaches your opponent’s side, the ball will be below the net and they’ll have to lift their hand up. If you contact the ball high it’s not as good and they’ll be able to be proactive. They’ll be able to go forward more on the ball.
If someone is playing fast, then you might want to serve more topspin. If you serve short topspin, the ball is probably going to come out to you, so you don’t want to be too close to the table. If you’re serving no spin or underspin, you don’t want to move too far back because the ball is probably going to travel closer to the net.
Usually when you serve, you need to be able to use the same serve on different locations on the table. You want to start with your legs and transfer. Use your hips. The most important thing is when you’re serving to contact the ball as low as you possibly can. You want the player to lift the ball rather than go forward. Once they lift the ball, you can go forward.
A good server is changing all the time. Changing their serve position, where they’re standing, where they’re serving, how much spin they’re putting on the ball. Sometimes they put a little bit on their spin, sometimes they add more. They have really good variation.
You could make the ball travel faster. But then again, if you’re playing somebody that likes that, you might have to put an arc on the ball. You might have to let them attack and block them out of position. If someone is serving and they’re moving their racquet in one direction, it’s helpful to move it in the opposite direction.
You can train players but there’s something that a player really needs to have in order to take in what you’re trying to show them. Often, they have some kind of entitlement. You really need some kind of struggle. They get a little knowledge and they think they know everything. I think not knowing, if you really want to talk about what intelligence is and being an expert, I think it’s not knowing.
I know a lot of what not to do. I don’t know if there are experts in table tennis. I think ping pong is similar to life. In order to be a very good player in ping pong, the one thing you need is to grind. Grind through points. Work. Grind through training. That’s what life is.
Of course, in table tennis sometimes you can overanalyze. That’s a big problem for a lot of players too. They analyze so much, sometimes you just got to go and play.