Sometimes to Win the War You’ve Got to Lose a Battle

win the war, lose a battle

It would be nice to win all the battles and the war but sometimes that just isn’t possible. When it comes down to it we need to focus on winning the war.  That might mean losing a few battles along the way but we must think long-term.

What am I talking about? Table tennis, of course! Each point we play is a mini battle. Then we’ve also got games, matches, events, tournaments, seasons and our entire playing career to think about.

Larry Hodges touches on this idea in his brilliant book Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers. He speaks of the difference between tactics and strategy, and concludes that tactics is all about what is best for now, while strategy is all about what is best for later.

He gives the example of the young player who always wins off of his opponents mistakes, by simply keeping the ball on the table. This is fine tactically, but eventually his opponents improve to the extent that they don’t miss very often and all of a sudden the passive player finds himself a long way behind his peers technically and unable to beat them anymore. Therefore, it was a bad move strategically. It put the short-term benefits above the long-term ones.

This is something that I find myself doing all the time

Sometimes I am so set on ‘not losing’ a single point in a game that I barely play an attacking stroke, and I hate myself for it. I work out that I am “less likely to miss” if I just push that long serve back, instead of going for a loop. In that case I am actually thinking shot-by-shot, which is even more short-term than point-by-point!

I fell into this short-term way of thinking last week in a local league match against a strong, but slightly wild, opponent (John Lee). I went 2-0 playing the kind of game I am ashamed of; pushing everything, blocking too much, feeling constantly scared.

You could say, “Well it was clearly working so what’s wrong with it?” The thing was; it didn’t work. I lost that match 3-2 and the match score is more important than a game score. In the same way a game score is more important than a point won or lost. We need to think long-term.

I was actually pretty lucky to win the first two ends, with both of them being close. The problem was that with each game John got stronger and stronger, while I got more and more passive, scared and inactive. By the fifth set I was blocking his long serves into the net and pushing his topspin serves, allowing him to loop the 3rd ball past me. As I said, hated myself for it but it was very difficult to change at that point in the match.

This pattern, of winning the first end or two but then ultimately losing the match, is something that has become a bit of a bad habit for me. And why does it happen? Because I am more concerned about winning the battle than the war. I am focused on the short-term result to the neglect of the long-term.

I’ve lost three matches so far this season and all of them have followed the same pattern. Don’t believe me? You can see my results here. I did the exact same thing against another strong attacking player, Karim Khassal, just a couple of weeks earlier. I went 2-0 up only to lose 3-2 once he cut out his unforced errors. And the week before that I’d done it against Joshua Webb too! Talk about not learning from your mistakes.

This is something that has been a problem for me for as long as I can remember

I remember playing Matt Ware a number of times as a junior. Matt Ware was a couple of years younger than me but he was ranked much higher. He was part of the England team and good enough that I should expect to lose 3-0 to him, if I was being realistic. But I never thought I would lose 3-0 to him because I always lost 3-1. I wish I had the results somewhere because I must have lost 3-1 to Matt Ware at least four or five times as a junior. I don’t think (but I may be wrong) that I ever lost 3-0.

I used to tell my dad, “Matt always gives me the first set”. At the time I found it a bit strange but looking back it’s obvious what was going on.

Even as a junior I was always quite a cautious and conservative player. I would play a consistency game; keeping the ball on the table and trying to keep it ‘tight’ so that my opponent couldn’t easily attack. This made up for some glaring deficiencies in my attacking game. My blocking wasn’t bad either and if they did attack I would often be able to block the ball back so that they would have to hit a few more big shots before winning the point.

This meant that if I played someone like Matt, in one of the early rounds when he isn’t playing his best, and he comes out swinging, then there is a good chance I’ll be able to win the first end off of his mistakes. The problem was that by the second game he had warmed up a bit, got his eye in and sorted out his timing, and now he wasn’t missing many shots. I’d lose the next three games.

Matt Ware was a much better player than me, and probably could have beat me in all sorts of way, so it doesn’t quite make the point as strongly. However, the point I’m making is this…

Would you rather win the battle or the war?

In my matches this season against John Lee, Karim Khassal and Joshua Webb, I chose to win the battle. Or rather, I wasn’t willing to lose a battle in order to win the war. I was so focused on not wanting to lose a game, a point, or even miss a shot, that I ended up losing the match.

Most table tennis matches are best of five (they are best of seven at international level). It’s no good winning the first game if that means you lose the next three. I’m not saying you should throw the first game by going for all sorts of stupid shots (obviously don’t do that) but you need to accept that you may lose the first set, and that’s okay. You may lose points early on. You may make mistakes trying to play attacking table tennis. But sometimes to win the war, you’ve got to lose a battle.

Here’s a helpful tip from table tennis coach Stuart Laws, who emailed me after reading this article.

What I tell the players I coach is this;

Go out attacking. Play your best shots. Play how you visualise yourself playing at your best – and maybe even bluff a little (e.g. if you have a weak backhand attack, go for a couple!) If it comes off, you’ll be relaxed and your game will flow, if not, it’s far easier to change the game and keep it tight, than start off playing tight and then try to open up and play higher risk attacking shots chasing the game when you are behind and under pressure… If you even have the bottle to change!

I personally found that really helpful and thought it was worth adding. Thanks Stuart!