I was playing tennis the other day, and suddenly it called to mind the days when I was the little kid in my family, and I and my elders were gathered ‘round the ping-pong table. That was the big activity in summer between us kids and Dad, and so periodically we would adjourn to the table, outdoors on the porch, and we would take turns on either side of the table, remaining if we won, relegated to the sideline if we lost. And that was where I first learned how to be a Defender.
You see, I was smaller. I was younger, and therefore less skilled. I was nervous. The only way I was going to win a game against my elders and betters at attack was to return. And return. And return. Learn how to get it back consistently, and then how to get it back, not to attack, but to cause the attacker to misfire. Vary the pace. Vary the angle. Make the shot difficult to return. Slice. Over-spin. Anything. Just keep returning.
And then, one day, browsing the Sports Illustrated subscription that I had been gifted one birthday, I ran across a very rare article on table tennis. It was actually a story. A story about two incredibly skilled Defenders. Uniquely, they had been matched together. And so it developed that the first point went on … and on … and on … each side refusing to attack, each side perfect in defense, until one of the two started up a conversation on the side as he was returning, and then turned it into a chess game. And that unnerved his opponent so much that he actually attempted an attacking slam, and when that was returned an even wilder slam, and when that was returned he hit the ball wildly into the air and ran screaming from the room. And when I read this I realized what I was doing. I realized the Art of the Defender.
At this point I must distinguish the Art of the Defender from the Art of the Counterpuncher. The counterpuncher’s fundamental state of mind is to attack; it’s just that he is leaning forward, looking for the perfect opportunity to do so, rather than attacking immediately. The Defender’s fundamental state of mind is to defend.
The Art of the Defender, as that article told me, is not to beat the opponent by skill. It is to break down the opponent’s game by breaking down the opponent’s psychological state. In a typical match between attackers, each side’s game steadily improves as the game goes on, because each is responding to a challenge of the other. In a match of attacker against defender, a successful Defender makes the opponent’s game steadily worse, by psychological means, by causing increasing frustration at missed shots, followed either by restriction to “safe” shots that will still cause him to miss more often than the Defender, or by more and more wild hitting that gives the Defender the game.
And that, in turn, means that above a certain level of player – one who is not stressed by slices or lobs, and knows how to avoid frustration – the Defender’s game is ultimately a losing one. Eventually, the Defender’s workable bag of tricks runs out, and then the game turns into a rout. Because, as those who have tried to train Defenders to rush the net have found, the Defender is just not as comfortable on the attack as the Attacker.
And so, at summer music camp, that first year I won the ping-pong tournament, iirc. The second year I lost in the finals. The third, I lost in the semi-finals.
There’s an interesting parallel, by the way, with the March on Atlanta in the Civil War, and the aftermath. Sherman was the Attacker, Joe Johnston the Defender. Back and back Johnston marched, always in a perfect defensive position, somehow never attacking. Finally, Sherman got so frustrated that at Kenesaw Mountain, he got 5,000 men killed pretty quickly marching straight up a hill into withering fire. But, in the end, he drove Johnston all the way back to Atlanta, and began to encircle the city.
At this point, Jefferson Davis stepped in and replaced Johnston by Hood, an Attacker – understandable, since simply by being at Atlanta, Sherman was squeezing the economic life out of the Confederacy, so crucial was this railroad crossroads. And Hood proceeded to Attack immediately, and lose a good proportion of his army. In fact, so frustrated was he at his army’s lack of skill at Attack, that he sent them straight up a hill in Franklin, Tennessee against withering fire, apparently in the belief that they needed to be forced to learn to Attack. After those two decimations, a third on Lookout Mountain effectively put the entire Army out of commission – the only time that happened in the Civil War. Defending may not be a winning game in the long run; but sometimes psychological frustration during the alternative, Attack, loses the game quicker.
But, more than that, playing a Defender’s game is not good for the skills and the improvement of those skills of either side. In fact, in the long run, the Defender’s game is good for one purpose only: winning the immediate match. The next match, and the next, the Attacker will gain on you, until eventually you will be losing all the time.
But at this stage in my life, it’s about long-term improvement for me, and I know that the wins will eventually, consistently follow. Because I am no longer a Defender. Fundamentally, I am leaning forward rather than either leaning back or planting myself in the ground and refusing to move in either direction. I like this better.
And so, when I meet an erstwhile fellow Defender across the net in a doubles match, I turn to my now-fellow Attacker partner and comfort him that this is normal when he mishits. I advise him to relax and just wait until well after the bounce. Never, ever do I suggest that he slice in return or Attack harder. I know that as long as he does not become frustrated, the rest will inevitably follow. And in my mind, I reminisce about the days when I did a perfect defensive lob, or a perfect drop shot, or a perfect passing shot when the opponent was at the net; but I never want to go back. I’ve had my fun; now, I want to learn the Art of the Attacker.