How to Play Table Tennis
So, you want to learn how to play table tennis? Well, this is the place to start…
Hi, I’m Ben Larcombe and welcome to Expert Table Tennis. On this page I’ll be systematically taking you through the process of learning how to play table tennis. You can also find this page by visiting…
You’re almost ready to start, but there are a few things you’re going to need to know (and do) before you can get going;
1. Buy a bat
You’re not going to get very far without a bat! You don’t need a really expensive one but it does need to be able to generate spin. I suggest you read my most popular blog post of all time, The Best Table Tennis Bat for Beginners. In it I reveal what not to buy (lots of the bats sold by the ‘popular’ brands are really awful) and point out a few of my favourite table tennis bats.
2. Find a coach/club
Lots of beginners try and ‘go it alone’, teaching themselves how to play from YouTube videos and blog posts. This can work, but it isn’t easy. I actually wrote a blog post about how to become your own coach to try and help. To some extent you do need to take responsibility for your own development as a table tennis player but at the same time working with a coach, and joining a club, is a great way to speed up your progress.
Getting good at table tennis takes time! You need to understand that you’re not going to get it overnight. Table tennis is one of those sports where if you don’t know what you are doing an experienced player can wipe the floor with you. There is a good chance you are going to suck compared to some of the club players you’ll come up against. Stick at it. They have probably dedicated more hours to this sport than you can believe.
Now we’ve got that out of the way it’s time for the exciting stuff. Let’s start learning how to play table tennis!
The Fundamentals of Table Tennis
I recommend you start at the beginning and focus on mastering the fundamentals of the game. Table tennis is a highly complex sport but at its simplest it can be broken down into just a few key parts. Go through and master each of these and you’ll be a proficient table tennis player in no time.
Actually, that’s not true.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt from The Expert in a Year Challenge, it’s that mastery takes time. If we are being realistic it could take you a whole year, or more, just to perfect the basics. It may feel like the going is rather slow, and you’d rather move on to banana flicks, round-the-nets, and all sorts of other creative stuff, but stick with the fundamentals and I guarantee you will see results. After all, there are no points for ‘flair’. Table tennis, in its essence, is all about making fewer mistakes than your opponent.
The first thing we need to do is identify the fundamentals of table tennis. This can be tricky, and I’m sure different coaches have different ideas on this, but I like to include the following (and ignore everything else, for now)…
That’s ten things you’ll need to master and I recommend you tackle them in that order. The first three are known as ‘the ABCs of physical literacy’ and are important in all sports. The next three are the real basics of table tennis that you want to understand before you start playing. The final four are the simple strokes and shots you’ll need to master in order to play the game. I’m going to go through each of them, one-by-one, and give you all the help you need to start learning how to play table tennis.
Balance is one of the ABCs of physical literacy. You may believe that good balance is something you either have or you don’t, but that isn’t true. Just like all physical skills balance can be worked on and improved.
At the most basic level balance is all about distributing your weight evenly so that you can remain upright and steady. If you have too much weight going forwards, backwards or to either side you will lose balance. You probably take a lot of this for granted, having mastered balancing a long time ago, but it’s worthwhile pointing out that the better you are at balancing the faster you will improve.
Balance is not a yes/no kind of skill, as we might believe. In fact, everyone is on a scale with some people having much better balance than others. If you are serious about improving your table tennis you should want to move further along the scale.
Table tennis is an active sport and therefore we are more interested in dynamic balance than static balance. Dynamic balance is the ability to maintain balance and control of the body whilst moving. In a table tennis match you need to be able to maintain balance as you move to the ball, as this will enable you to play a good shot and move for the next ball.
Here is a video explaining the importance of balance in table tennis by Wang Wen Jie, coach on the Swedish club Askims BTK.
Some of the key points he mentions are;
- Keep your body low and in the middle
- Your upper body should be relaxed
- Make sure your feet are in the correct position
There are lots of non-table tennis activities and exercises you can do to improve your dynamic balance. It’s worth spending some time on these until you feel really comfortable. You should be able to run, jump, hop on both legs, skip, and do all sorts of combinations of these movements while maintaining balance.
Master the art of balance early on and you’ll find everything else comes much more naturally. Good dynamic balance is a skill that the ‘naturals’ often have from the start. It’s one of the reasons they make playing table tennis look so easy and improve so quickly.
Coordination is another one of the ABCs of physical literacy. Coordinated people are good at skills such as throwing and catching, hitting and kicking. They are able to make the right movements at the right time.
Coordination is crucial to table tennis success. You need to be able to track the ball and then move your body correctly and on time in order to make a stroke. Hitting a table tennis ball may seem simple but in fact it is highly complex. That’s one of the reasons why they haven’t been able to create a machine/robot that can beat a human yet.
Whether you class yourself as coordinated or uncoordinated really doesn’t matter. If you want to learn how to play table tennis you need to work on improving your general and table tennis specific coordination as much as possible. You should work on your throwing and catching, especially with table tennis balls. You can also do exercises where you have to kick the table tennis ball. This works on your balance as well as your coordination.
Here’s a video of some table tennis specific coordination training.
It might seem very basic but this is not a waste of time at all. Children do this stuff. They have coaches that get them to do all of these coordination drills early on and then when they actually start playing they pick it up much faster. If we are learning to play as older children or adults we should give these exercises a try too.
Here is another example. Balancing a balloon on your bat while also trying to dribble a table tennis ball through cones is incredibly difficult. It is working all different parts of your body and giving your brain loads of things to think about and regulate at once.
It is a good idea to practice all of these ‘kids’ exercises and games. Bounce the ball on your bat. Play against a wall. Try to run while keeping the ball on your racket. All of these will build your foundations and help you improve faster once you begin learning the actual strokes.
Agility is the most advanced of the three which is why it comes last (even though it begins with A). Skills that comes under the umbrella term of agility involve; starting, stopping, changing direction, rotation, reaction, and complex movements.
Table tennis relies heavily on agility. Despite what many people believe, table tennis is not a static sport; far from it. Playing table tennis well requires the individual to make hundreds of rapid movements and reactions. Top players are constantly getting into position, changing direction and reacting to the ball. The speed of play makes agility one of the most important factors for success. With smashes in excess of 60mph, a player typically has only 0.3 seconds to react.
Here’s an example of some agility training for table tennis players.
The focus here is on speed, rapid change of direction, and keeping the movements as relevant to table tennis as possible. To do this they have kept the distances short and cramped to encourage fast feet.
I have to admit that during my 15+ years of involvement in table tennis I have done very little agility training. At many clubs this kind of practice is clearly being overlooked. Here is an interesting article from Rowden Fullen’s site comparing the speed and agility of Asian and European players. It appears Asia is taking agility much more seriously than the rest of the world.
Balance, coordination and agility are physical skills that we should all be constantly trying to improve because they have a direct impact on our table tennis performance. Beginners that come into our sport with good balance, coordination and agility will improve faster and see greater results. Sam was lacking in all of these areas, due to limited experience in other sports, and it showed. Recognise the importance of this stuff and make sure you incorporate it into your training. I decided to have these at the very beginning of the process because they are clearly the building blocks for all future sporting success.
Now onto the table tennis…
The first fundamental table tennis skill you need to learn is a correct grip. There are two main grips in table tennis; shakehands and penhold.
The penhold grip is a traditional Asian grip where the bat is held like a pen between the thumb and index finger. The penhold grip has some advantages (it allows for more wrist movement and therefore more spin) but it is also more difficult to learn. Penhold players either use one side of the bat for forehand and backhand or they have to master the tricky reverse penhold backhand stroke. There are still penhold players at the top of the world rankings but the style does seem to be decreasing in popularity, even in China.
The shakehands grip is the traditional European grip that is now being used increasingly by Asian players as well. I have used the shakehands grip since I started playing table tennis over 15 years ago and therefore I will be teaching this style of grip.
There are many minor variations within the shakehands grip and everybody holds the bat slightly differently. I made the following video after spending 10 weeks experimenting with my grip during the beginning of 2015.
That video has received a lot of positive feedback and it gives a much better explanation of my current thoughts on grip than my original blog post (which I wrote in 2013).
I am thinking of calling this grip ‘the relaxed shakehands grip’ as I believe that there is a significant difference between this grip and the shakehands grip I was using for the first 15 years of my career as a player. It’s not that my old grip was inherently wrong (after all it was never corrected by any coaches) I just feel that the relaxed shakehands grip has a number of benefits that make it more suited to the modern game of table tennis.
I encourage you to spend some time developing your own version of the relaxed shakehands grip. You want to get comfortable with it before you move on to playing shots.
Before you start hitting balls it’s important to get your stance right. I did a terrible job teaching stance to Sam. For the first month I basically let him stand however he liked and he developed a load of bad habits that he then had to struggle to fix later on.
The two key aspects of a good stance is being low and wide. What that means is that you want to get your center of gravity as low as realistically possible and you want your feet to be at least 1.5 shoulder width apart, perhaps even further. Standing and moving around in this kind of position can feel a little tiring, it’s much easier and more comfortable to stand bolt upright with your feet closer together, but it’s important that you develop the strength needed to maintain this position.
Here is a video of Ryan Jenkins running through the basic stance.
Another term you may of heard is ‘ready position’. Sometimes stance and ready position and used almost interchangeably. Ready position refers to the generic stance that you might expect to see used by a player receiving serve; feet quite wide apart, knees bent, body crouched, and both arms out in front of you, with the bat in a neutral position.
It’s important to have a relaxed stance (actually it’s important to have a relaxed everything in table tennis). Let your upper body muscles relax and your arms and shoulder can even hang forward a bit like a gorilla! Your leg muscles will need to be more engaged and ready to move.
One way to achieve this is through deep breathing; breathing from your stomach. Take a big breath in, inflate your lungs, and then let it all out. As you do allow your upper body to naturally drop down. You should feel your center of gravity sink, your balance increase, and your core become more solid. From then on maintain your stance and engage in some belly breathing. This will help to keep you relaxed and low.
Here’s a previous article I wrote on stance and the ready position.
The final important aspect to cover before you start hitting balls is your footwork. Many players are taught all the strokes first, from a stationary position, and then footwork and movement is added in further down the line. This seems like a bad idea to me. Table tennis is an active sport where you need to play shots and then move.
I believe that we would be much better taking a leaf out of boxing’s training methods. Punching is obviously really important in boxing but so is footwork. You need both and they are inextricably linked. That’s why even beginner boxers are taught footwork alongside the basic punches. They don’t start by punching from a standing position, flat-footed, and then try and incorporate footwork once they have learnt the punches. The two go together.
Table tennis footwork is quite strange. This is because most of the time you don’t need to move very far, all you need to do is make a small adjustment with your feet. Watch the video below of Wang Wen Jie (who I think is awesome) and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
The majority of beginners use a fast serve that has very little spin or a bit of topspin. There isn’t anything wrong with this but you will become a bit predictable if you do the same serve every single time.
There are loads of different types of serve in table tennis, some are very complex. You don’t need to worry about the majority of them at this stage. I think your best bet is to develop a super heavy backspin serve and a super fast serve. The ‘super’ has been added to point out what is important. Your backspin serve must have as much backspin as possible and your fast serve must be as fast as possible.
Here are a couple of articles that will help you to master these serves…
- Developing a Super Heavy Backspin Serve
- Developing a Super Fast Serve
Advanced Table Tennis Training
Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals you can move on to some more advanced training. Sports development is typically divided into four categories; physical, technical, tactical and mental. In order to become a complete player and fulfil your potential you will need to dedicate a significant amount of time to each.
One of the most common mistakes is to rely to heavily on technical training, ignoring the physical, tactical and mental aspects of the game that are equally vital for success. It is easy to fall into the trap of becoming a “technique freak” where you obsessive try to reach perfection with your technique, while the rest of your game is the real cause of your problems.
Don’t make that mistake. Understand the importance of developing the physical, technical, tactical and mental side of your game, and you’ll be surprised how easily things start to come together.
Advanced Physical Training
Advanced Technical Training
There are a number of advanced strokes to be learnt. These include;
- Opening up
There are also a number of different advanced service techniques.
- Pendulum & Reverse Pendulum
- Tomahawk & Reverse Tomahawk
Here are some advanced technical drills;
- 3-Point Forehand
- Backhand, Middle, Backhand, Wide
Advanced Tactical Training
Advanced Mental Training