Why Do I Lose to Ping-Pong Players Who are Worse than I Am?

It's Not Just Who You Beat, But Who You Don't Lose To...

18th Commonwealth Games-Day 3: Table Tennis
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This has to be one of the most common questions asked by table tennis players around the world, usually as they come off the court wondering what the heck just happened. They know they are better than their opponent, but somehow the match just slipped away. What's going on? Help!

There are two possibilities: (1) You are the better player; and (2) Your opponent is the better player. Let's take a look at what might be going wrong when you are the better player.

When You Really Are the Better Ping-Pong Player - But You Lose Anyway

When comparing you and your opponent, your results against other players indicate that you should comfortably be the winner. So why are you losing to someone who, on paper at least, is clearly inferior?

There are a number of possible reasons why this lesser player is coming out on top against you. Here's some to consider:

  • You may be overconfident due to the perceived difference in standard, causing you to lack concentration and encouraging you to goof around instead of playing seriously.

    Suggested Solution - Don't take any player lightly. Always play your best against any opponent.

  • Your opponent might be using very good tactics against you, making you play your 'B' game against his 'A' game. Unless you realize what is happening and change your tactics, you may end up losing because you are not playing your strongest game.

    Suggested Solution - Pay attention to what is happening during the match. If you are not playing your 'A' game and you are really the better player, you should be able to impose your 'A' game on your opponent if you are concentrating on implementing your tactics properly.

  • Your opponent might have decided that he is unable to beat you with his 'A' game, so he is playing his 'B' game instead, which stops you from playing your 'A' game. If your 'B' game is worse than his 'B' game, he could still beat you.

    A famous example of this tactic is when Jan-Ove Waldner played Vladimir Samsonov in the 1997 World Championship Men's Final. Earlier that week, both players had met in teams competition, and Samsonov's controlled blocking and counterattacking game had defeated Waldner's more allround style easily. In the Men's Final, Waldner came out with a much more aggressive style than usual, playing his 'B' game instead. Waldner played so well that Samsonov could not play his usual 'A' game, and was forced to try to be more aggressive himself. He couldn't adjust his game in time and Waldner was a comfortable 3-0 winner, and World Men's Champion for the second time.

    Suggested Solution - If your opponent has changed styles, so that you can no longer play your 'A' game, and he is beating you with his 'B' game against your 'B' game, you need to either change back to your 'A' game and play it better (possible if you are not concentrating enough) or move to your 'C' game instead, in an attempt to force your opponent out of his 'B' game into his 'C' game.

  • You may be better than your opponent in many areas, but you possess a glaring weakness that he can exploit often to win many points with his strength, while his weaknesses are not so easy for you to exploit with your strengths.

    Suggested Solution - If you are unable to stop your opponent from taking advantage of your big weakness, you might want to move to your 'B' or 'C' game - anything that makes that big weakness harder to get at. For example, if you are an attacker, but are consistently losing points by missing your attacks against your opponent's long serves, you may want to try pushing the ball back instead, then blocking your opponent's attack, and attempting to place the ball so that you can get the opportunity for a counterattack.

  • Your opponent may be a 'streaky' player, whose level of player rises and falls dramatically depending on his level of self-confidence. If he is having a hot streak, he may be playing well enough to sneak a win against you.

    Suggested Solution - Take a bit longer between points and use your full minute between games. Towel off every 6 points, as you are allowed to. Use your 1 minute time-out when you think it's appropriate. The longer you can keep the match going, the more chance you have that your opponent will cool off again.

  • Your opponent may have practiced a lot against your style of play, and be well prepared for anything you can do.

    Suggested Solution - You may need to change to your 'B' game to beat this player. If you stay with your 'A' game, you are going to lose anyway, so it might be worth a shot.

  • Your opponent might be using gamesmanship against you. Some players attempt to mess with their opponent's minds in order to get an unfair advantage. If a weaker player can get you steamed up and thinking about how rude he is when he cheers your fault serves, stalls between points, or continually gets the score wrong, then his chances of stealing the match from you get better.

    Suggested Solution - Be aware of what your opponent is trying to do with his sneaky tactics. The key is to recognize what is going on. Then you can choose to (a) ignore his efforts, knowing what he is trying to do to you; or (b) fight fire with fire! Choose the method that suits your personality best.

  • You may be putting extra pressure on yourself to win because you believe you are the better player. This can make you afraid to lose, rather than eager to win. Once you get in this mindset, it is hard to play your best table tennis, because you are no longer trying to play well, but worried about playing your worst!

    Suggested Solution- Try to relax when playing your matches. You have already done the hard work in training, now get out on the court and allow your body to do what you have trained it to do. Focus on thinking about what you are doing correctly, instead of dwelling on what is going wrong. The level of your opponent is not important - you are trying to play to the standard you have achieved in training, no better or worse. If you play to your level, then the victories will follow.

  • You may be the better player, but due to a lack of fitness, your standard drops as you get more tired, allowing weaker players to beat you.

    Suggested Solution - Get fitter or play less events!

Next: When Your Opponent is Really the Better Player

Are You Really the Better Ping-Pong Player?

Let's look at this objectively - you might be wrong about whether you are the better table tennis player. Ratings are occasionally not really a true reflection of a player's level, and we don't give marks for style in table tennis! Here's how you could be mistaken about your opponent's standard:

  • You may be looking at the way your opponent plays incorrectly. A common mistake is to compare your best shots - such as your forehand loop - against the same strokes of your opponent. But his forehand loop might not be an important part of his game, which makes your comparison meaningless.


  • You may be forgetting to consider your opponent as a total package. It's not how strong each individual stroke is, but how he manages to combine them during the rally, that is important. His technique may be worse than yours, but if he can transition from one stroke to another better than you, his overall game may well be superior.


  • You may be ignoring the role that shot selection and placement also plays during a match. You may be better technically, but if your opponent is better at placing the ball into awkward positions, he may still beat you.


  • Your opponent may be a rapidly improving player, who has risen in standard since the last time he played in a tournament, and has now passed you by in level.


  • Finally, you may be mentally inferior to your opponent. If your opponent is making all the right tactical decisions, while you keep choosing the wrong tactics, then he may still be able to look ugly but be effective on the court.


    As you can see, there are a number of reasons why you may be losing to a table tennis player that you think is worse than you are. Be realistic about your own strengths, weaknesses, and overall game, stay aware of what is actually going on out there on the table, and not what you think should be happening, and you will improve your chances of winning those matches that you think are yours for the taking.

    And maybe you'll steal a few matches that - according to the ratings - aren't! (I can see the title of my next article now - "Why Do I Keep Beating Players I Should Lose To?" :)