One of the most valuable assets to have as a bench coach is the skill of observation, along side this you need the ability to understand your player and to keep their head space in the game. These are things that come alongside building a good relationship with your player. It may be a training partner, a friend or a student who calls you to help them in winning an important match. So what can you do to be the best bench coach possible? This article will look in detail at the small things that can make a huge difference in a crucial match.
Before a match you need to make sure your player has had a good warmup, whether it be with you or with another player. Make sure you use the time efficiently to cover all the important areas of the game, a forehand and backhand drive warmup, some attacking balls, some blocking. It’s very important to include some short and long pushes and some service and opening from various places on the table and finish off with some receiving. This should all squeeze into a 15 minute period but of course you can spend more time if you have it on hand.
Check with your player, have they eaten or had an energy snack? Are they physically warmed up and prepared for the match? Make sure they have filled their water bottles and if they want a more sugary drink on the side as well, do they have that ready also?
At this point you need to take them aside and go over the match, if you have any pre-match tips. Remind them that they are here to play their best table tennis, focus on a game plan and not the score and get them pumped up mentally. You need to make sure they are ready mentally for the match so they can get straight into the match instead of starting off slow. This may be the time to give them any observations you have previously had on their opponent already and give them some advice. Perhaps you might tell them in the first set to play tight and pick the right ball to open on, just to get the ball rolling, this is often a sound strategy to implement to get into the game.
During the First Set
It is important you focus on the match solely. Pay attention to how points are being won and lost and of course on both your player and the opponent. Are there areas your player is not doing so well in? Are there weaknesses to be exploited in the opposition or strengths to try and avoid? Is your player in ‘the zone’ mentally? Make sure you support your player by praising their good points, try and keep them positive as they go through the set. Of course you need to make sure you don’t offer any advice during the set as this is not allowed.
At the End of the First Set
Ask your player how they felt about the set. Give them a chance to express their own observations quickly first and to take a chance to stop and breathe and take everything in. You may then offer your own advices to them, be sure to keep positive language when offering advice instead of focusing too much on negatives e.g you shouldn’t be doing this, you can’t use this shot, why did you do this so much or this isn’t working for you. Focus more on offering suggestions, this is going well, perhaps you can try this which might be more effective for this reason etc. Try not to bombard your player with too much to think about, keep the points concise and to a few key areas. Make sure you leave enough time to refocus your player and give them a second to take in all the information before they return to the table. Also make sure if they need fluids (which they often will) that you are there to offer them.
In the Further Sets
After the first sets going further into the match you will continue to analyse the match but in particular you will evaluate whether your player is executing the game plan you and them have together laid out. Aside from this you will need to pay particular attention to any changes that the opponent is making in their game and what effect this is having on the points. An opponent may change from pushing long and hard in one set to focusing on short receiving which may be causing your player to make more errors and not open up first in the points. These are important areas to observe during the following sets.
Using the Timeout
You have a timeout at your disposal. This can be used on a few occasions:
a) Your player is starting to lose their focus or become frustrated/mentally distracted
b) Your player’s opponent wins a long string of points in a row or is coming back on your player’s lead
c) Your player is at a crucial point in the match where nerves may cause disruption and they need reassurance
d) The game plan requires severe changes, perhaps your player hasn’t noticed a significant change in their opponents tactics. Anything which cannot wait till the end of the set.
Remember you have one timeout in the match so use it wisely!
Maintaining Mental Focus
Sometimes your player can lose their focus or their mental space completely. This is the moment your bench coaching changes. Tactics and game plan are pointless in this instance if your player cannot bring their match focus back, so your sole responsibility is to offer them confidence and support so they have the positive vibe back behind them to bring the match back in their favour. Often a player can know exactly what they need to do to win the points but frustration and bad temperament can get in their way. Instead of telling them more of the same tips, make sure you help reduce their bad mental state so they can refocus on the game plan which has already been established.
End of the Match
At the end of the match always give your player time to soak up the performance and the result before approaching them to speak about it. Make sure you focus on the positives first, especially if the player has lost. Console them in this scenario and when they are in an ok state to talk, you can reflect on the performance and what could have gone better/what can go better in future matches etc. Ensure your player maintains fluids and gets something to eat to restore their energy level also.
Being a good bench coach is about putting yourself in the player’s shoes to experience the match in their perspective. You need to know how their head space is working and find the best ways to help the player and their needs on the table, this comes from relating to their performance and how they are performing mentally and tactically on the table.
I hope this helps aspiring bench coaches out there, whether you are helping a friend to win a match or coaching a dedicated student!