WPH Coaching Center: Preparing to play your nemesis

Posted on Jun 9 2024 - 2:47am by DV

Preparing to play your nemesis

WPH Press, Tucson, AZ, 6/3/24

We all have that player we can’t seem to beat. We think we can win, we’re close, but for whatever reason, we just do not get over the line. What should we do? Change the game plan? Visualize? Be more positive? Erase all the bad memories and start fresh? On this edition of the WPH Coaching Center, we ask a number of Race 4 Eight pros how to prepare to play your nemesis.

Current R48 #15, Former Icebreaker MVP Jab Bike

I think you just have to go into it telling yourself that you can get the job done. You can’t play someone else’s game. You have to play your own game and the best version of it. You can’t worry about the shots that they have. I try to focus on my game and what works best for me.

To prepare to play a nemesis, I probably spend a few extra minutes getting in the right mental headspace to play a big match. Positive self-talk. Focus. I try to remind myself that I can do it too.

I probably change my strategy if something has proven to not work over and over again. It would be dumb to keep trying something that doesn’t work over and over again.

Current R48 #5 and 3-time Race 4 Eight finalist Leo Canales

When it comes to playing a player I haven’t had success against, I usually go into the match with the mindset to play my game and execute my shots, but I have a backup game plan to make him hit shots he’s not the most comfortable with even if it’s a style I don’t usually use. I try to do some film study to see if there’s a certain serve that will make them uncomfortable returning. I try to stay positive and focus on the game plan and know that I will have to execute and take advantage of any opportunities I get. I try to remain relaxed and not put any pressure on myself pre match, and try to have a good warm up to make sure I’m ready to play hard from the first point. At the end of the day it all comes down to being able to execute your shots.

Current R48 #24 and 2022 Player’s Championship Quarterfinalist Loren Collado

For someone that beats me more frequently than I beat him, I try to focus on what the main factors are that I lacked or needed to improve on. At the pro level, fitness is a requirement for everyone that I have to play; so if I’m not fit, then I’m pretty much toast.

Aside from that, I try to narrow down where I gave up points (ie: aces, bad return of serves, unforced hand errors, forced shots, skipped kill shots, defensive weaknesses) and try to improve on that aspect for the next time. Obviously, improving on serve returns can be the hardest because there is no way of properly mimicking that situation in practice but that comes after playing against your nemesis enough times. So, it’s usually things like developing confidence and replicability in your shot arsenal and plugging those holes that caused you to give up free points last time. So, if you find a specific shot that your nemesis uses consistently to score points on you, then I would develop confidence and replicability for that in practice and bring it to your next matchup.

Then there’s the aspect of the game where YOU have to score points. Firstly, I’d like to have a range of rally-ending shots that I know I’ll have confidence in making 10x out of 10. Usually for me, it’ll be different angles that I feel most comfortable with killing the ball and being automatic with back wall setups. However, sometimes your nemesis can cause you to be less confident in your setups due to his ability to retrieve your kill shots effectively; therefore, you might over-hit your kills causing them to be too high or dipping in for a skip. The best way in my opinion is to not think that you have to perfectly roll out this setup that you get, but rather, get into the habit of following up the shot by running back into position to anticipate the return as soon as you finish striking the ball. I find that this helps to relieve the feeling of having to kill the ball perfectly to win the rally and the game. And it keeps your kill shots more consistent when you’re playing your nemesis or anyone else.

Current R48 #12 and current collegiate national champion Mark Doyle

I think for me my nemesis would have to be Sam Esser. I’m 1-6 with him in two years with some pretty close losses so he would definitely be mine. Going in to play him I really try to focus on keeping the ball off the back because he is so good off it.

(When playing a nemesis) I think it just depends on who you are playing to change your strategy and not really that they are your nemesis, that is irrelevant as it is a new game and another chance irrespective of the past. I keep it positive, almost anytime we play it’s been close so I know going in iv always a good chance.

Current WR48 #2 and 2023/24 WR48 Breakthrough Player of the Year Mikaila Esser

I think at the beginning of this 4-Wall season I was at a point in my handball career where a lot of the women’s pros were still beating me. So, I had to change my mindset a lot going into these games. The biggest thing I’ve noticed with the games I do win is I tell myself I know I can win. I have the confidence going into the game that I’m going to make smart shots and do everything I can that is in my control. Most of the players I have played before, so I know their game and their strengths. With that, I try to do what I can so they don’t get easy sets up and make shots that shift the momentum in their direction.

Positive self-talk is important. I’ve had matches before where I didn’t feel confident due to something else going on (injury, sickness, life) and I played the worst handball because my focus was totally gone. This happened because I didn’t even believe I was going to win. I have to believe it or I won’t play like it.

For me I have to remind myself not to think about the outcome of the game or the rest of the tournament. In Salt Lake City this year, I got caught up in this. I feared if I lost my first round in the tournament, all my work the whole season meant nothing. I worried so much about winning that I didn’t even focus on the handball match. I knew I could win because it was an opponent I had beaten before, but I was thinking about the fear of losing. This had me missing a lot of shots I would normally make. I lost that match in a tiebreaker and after that I thought I had nothing to lose. I was able to win an important playoff game to move me to the 5th place final. I think I only won that because I didn’t think I had anything to lose at that point and I just focused on playing my best. Changing my mindset with these types of matches is a work in progress, but I keep trying to remind myself to focus and relax during my time between rallies and utilizing time outs too.

Current R48 #7 and current head coach to 2023/24 WR48 Breakthrough Player of the Year (Mikaila Esser) Sam Esser

I think in the past I used to feel a little nervous when I played someone I haven’t beaten, but that has faded as I’ve played the pro tour.

I really don’t do too much different in those matches, just try to play with confidence and remind myself every shot counts!

WR48 #3 and 2024 WR48 Player’s Championship finalist Niamh Heffernan

I would prepare against a player I have never beat by analyzing their game. I would also look over my own game and see what shots I missed/ I could improve.

I would try to stay confident in my own game going into matches. I would train hard, but I also have room for improvement. Game by game I analyze my shots and see what I done well and what I could improve.

Current R48 #35 and 2023 Memorial MVP Luke Sandy

I think when playing your nemesis, it’s the added fuel to the fire in the preparation! I always feel more locked in mentally when I know I’m going against someone I often run into in tournaments! I focus on letting the ball drop and hitting shots with the proper technique! I know if you struggle to beat someone, try and switch up your serves and keep them from getting comfortable and leaning one way

Current R48 #22 and current GAA #4 David Walsh

I just think about it as a new game and tell myself I’m prepared for the challenge. I’d try to learn from previous occasions against the same opponent, we’re lucky in that sense to have access to watch games back. Just enjoy the game, stay focused and do my best, see what happens then.

Thank you to all of the Race 4 Eight pros for sharing how they approach Playing Their Nemesis

Read and watch all WPH Coaching Centers HERE

David Fink

WPH Senior Writer

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