The fastest way to learn how to play table tennis!
Want to learn how to play table tennis? You’ve come to the right place!
How to Play Table Tennis in 10 Days is an accelerated table tennis course that will systematically teach you the proper fundamentals of table tennis technique in ten simple steps. It’s the fastest way for beginners to learn how to play table tennis.
I’ve coached thousands of beginners (literally)
Hello, my name is Ben Larcombe. I’m a table tennis coach from London and I’ve spent the last four years teaching table tennis to beginners in schools, clubs, privately and (very publicly) in The Expert in a Year Challenge.
Over those four years I have been refining my coaching process and deconstructing the sport of table tennis into its most essential chunks.
I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes along the way but I’ve learnt from each and every one of them and now I’ve reached a point where I am happy with my coaching system and ready to share it with the world.
Table tennis is a highly complex sport but at its simplest it can be broken down into just a few key parts. Focus exclusively on these and you’ll be a proficient table tennis player in no time (10 days to be precise).
That isn’t to say you’ll be an ‘expert’ in 10 days (if there is one thing I learnt from The Expert in a Year Challenge it’s that mastery takes time) but you should be at a level where you can easily beat your friends and family.
This is only the beginning. True mastery of the game of table tennis takes many years but you’ve got to start somewhere and I believe How to Play Table Tennis in 10 Days is the best start you can have.
What are the fundamentals of table tennis?
Answering that question 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);
- Forehand Drive
- Backhand Drive
- Backhand Push
- Forehand Push
- Return of serve
- Match Play
That’s ten skills you’ll need to master and I recommend you tackle them in that order.
The first three (grip, stance and footwork) are the foundations you need to lay at the beginning. Many players (and even coaches) skip over these and jump straight into hitting balls. Do so at your peril! Weak foundations can cause your whole game to fall down, or can prevent you from being able to continue building and improving later on. I like to think of this as the Mr Miyagi phase of learning.
The middle four (forehand drive, backhand drive, backhand push and forehand push) are the four basic table tennis strokes and will make up the bulk of your game. Mastering the correct technique is really important here if you are to develop consistency and accuracy with your shots.
The final three (serve, return of serve and match play) are the finishing touches that will allow you to convert your newly learnt skills into points in a match. It is no good being excellent at rallying if your abilities don’t transition into a competitive situation.
When I say 10 days… I mean 10 days!
If you think an hour-long practice is going to be enough to master each of these skills I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I am expecting you to require at least 5 hours per skill before you reach a good level of competency. That’s roughly 50 hours in total.
- You could do 5 hours a day over two weeks (10 days). I believe that to be the ideal way to learn. A sort of ‘crash course’ in table tennis.
- Alternatively, if you don’t have two weeks free, you could break it down into smaller chunks:
- An hour a day (5 hours a week) over 10 weeks.
- An hour a week over a year.
You should come up with a realistic plan for your 50 hours of training NOW! Before you start. You will also need to find a partner, partners, or club to practice with.
Finally, you need to buy a table tennis bat. It can be tricky choosing a bat and the big brands don’t help by sticking professional player’s faces on completely useless bats. To help you to understand what to look for in a good table tennis bat I have written the following article: The Best Table Tennis Bat for Beginners.
Once you’ve got all of that sorted it’s time to begin the training…
Day 1 – Grip
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 (Xu Xin) 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. You should practice bouncing and controlling the ball with your shakehands grip. There are loads of coordination drills you can do to work on your ball control while helping your brain to save your grip to memory.
Your grip is the only connection between your body and your bat. It is worth getting it right!
Day 2 – Stance
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 widths 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 the ‘ready position’. Sometimes stance and ready position are 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 shoulders 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 exhale 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.
Once you understand the basics of stance you can test yourself with some balance and agility drills. A great way to continue drilling in this new stance is to play one-on-one catch games using a table tennis ball with a partner. You could even do some ball control skills in your new stance (for example: hitting a ball against a wall while staying low and relaxed).
Here’s a previous article I wrote on stance and the ready position.
Day 3 – Footwork
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 small adjustments with your feet. Watch the video below of Wang Wen Jie (coach on the Swedish club Askims BTK) and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
This is going to feel very unnatural at first as very few other activities require this kind of movement. That is why you have a whole day to work on mastering this type of footwork.
You should concentrate on getting comfortable with the side-step footwork first, especially with lots of fast changes of direction. You can practice this going around a table tennis table in circles (if you have one). Then you can move on to faster footwork patterns or trying to cover large distances with one step.
Table tennis is a very explosive sport and if you look at any of the top players you will notice that they all have massive legs. This kind of movement is hard work!
I would recommend keeping your bat in your hand while working on your footwork and also remembering to stay in your relaxed and low stance. This will keep you to stay balanced when moving and make the practice more realistic to the experience of actually playing table tennis.
Day 4 – Forehand Drive
It’s finally time to start hitting some balls! I know it can be tempting to skip over the first three days and start playing straight away but I would really advise against it. You will pick up the four basic table tennis strokes so much faster having spent three days getting really comfortable with your grip, stance and footwork.
Back in 2012 I wrote the blog post How to Play a Forehand Drive in Table Tennis. Since then it has received over 25,000 views. Nothing has changed either. The technique I teach now is pretty much exactly the same as what I was teaching in 2012.
They key is to focus on control, consistency and accuracy. I will be saying this many times during the course. Don’t get carried away trying to play too fast or hit the ball really hard. When you are first starting out consistency is king.
Here is a video of coach Jason Sugrue going through most of the basics of the stroke.
My one piece of advice would be don’t over think when you are learning this stroke. You want your forehand drive to be natural and relaxed. If you are consciously thinking about your technique and which parts of your body should be moving where you are going to end up playing like a robot.
The key is quantity. You need to rally, rally, rally. After five hours you should have reached a point where you are quite comfortable with the forehand drive. Your target should be to play 100 controlled shots in a row without a mistake. Once you have reached that level you know that the stroke has begun to transfer into your subconscious.
Day 5 – Backhand Drive
Some people find learning the backhand drive easier than the forehand drive. Others find it more difficult. The technique is very different so that isn’t surprising.
The principle, however, is exactly the same. You want to develop a stroke that is controlled, consistent and accurate. You should be aiming for that 100 shot target and trying to get as comfortable and natural with the technique as possible.
Here is a video of Ma Long (the current world #1) demonstrating his backhand drive technique. The video includes the forehand and backhand drive. It’s worth watching both but if you just want the backhand drive it starts at 4:09.
Ma Long is an excellent example of the perfect technique for these drive strokes.
You may have noticed Ma Long pointing out his use of the thumb on the backhand. Many players have their thumb slightly higher on the rubber for a backhand in order to give more stability to the stroke. This is one of the reasons I favour the relaxed shakehands grip (from Day 1) because the slight pinch technique between the thumb and index finger gives you the ability to use your thumb on the backhand.
However, you don’t want to be having a big grip change between your forehand and backhand strokes. While you can often get away with this in practice and rallying it can really hold you back in match play. While Ma Long does slightly adjust the position of this thumb between forehand and backhand strokes his grip remains pretty much unchanged.
If you need more detail check out my blog post How to Play a Backhand Drive.
Once you feel comfortable with the backhand drive technique you should practice combining the forehand and backhand strokes, both in regular drills (for example: one forehand followed by one backhand) and in random/irregular play.
Day 6 – Backhand Push
Once you’ve got the hang of the forehand and backhand drive (your topspin strokes) it’s time to work on your forehand and backhand push (your backspin strokes). You need to be able to play a topspin game and a backspin game. Many recreational players can only do one or the other.
I like to start with the backhand push first because it is a much easier stroke to learn. You should be able to pick it up quite quickly and be achieving long rallies almost straight away.
Here is a PingSkills video outlining the main coaching points of the backhand push.
For a more detailed look at the coaching points and common errors for the backhand push click here.
You’ve heard me say it before but I’m going to say it again, focus on control, consistency and accuracy. Try and reach a point where you feel like you go play backhand pushes forever without ever making a mistake.
Once you get to that point it’s time to start thinking about increasing the amount of backspin on your pushes. Most players can push but very few are able to generate heavy backspin on their pushes. This requires you to open up your bat angle, get right underneath the ball, and brush it with a fine contact using a lot of wrist acceleration.
A good game to play is to play push-to-push with a partner while both of you are trying to put so much backspin on the ball that the other person pushes into the net.
At the advanced level players will be trying to keep their pushes super short (or occasionally digging them really deep into the end line) but for now the best use of your time is learning how to generate heavy backspin and keep your consistency high.
If you have a heavy backspin push you will also find it much easier later on to develop a heavy backspin serve.
Day 7 – Forehand Push
The forehand push is definitely the most difficult of the four basic strokes to learn. It’s just quite an awkward and unnatural motion. The backhand push technique seems to work well with our arm and elbow while the forehand push simply doesn’t.
You will probably find it easier and more convenient to play a backhand push up to 75% of the time. You can still play a backhand push to a ball in the middle of the table and even slightly in the forehand half. However, if you receive a backspin ball to your wide forehand you are going to have to play a forehand push… so you better be able to!
Here is a demonstration from Stefan Feth (Head Coach at the World Champions Table Tennis Academy in California and former German national team player).
I really like Stefan’s emphasis on making the push spinny, low, fast and long. If you can push in this way then you are turning your push into a weapon (especially at the lower levels of play) instead of just using it to keep the ball on the table.
He also talks about making contact at 6 o’clock, meaning that you should try to get completely underneath the ball if you are to generate maximum spin. Plenty of beginners make the mistake of hitting down the back of the ball instead of underneath it. In reality your bat probably won’t be completely horizontal but that is how it should feel in your head when you are playing a good push.
The forehand push will require plenty of practice before you start to get the hang of it. Keep going! Avoid the temptation to skip over this because it is difficult. If you are still struggling try and watch a player with a good forehand push. It can be very hard to explain how to push well but you can learn a lot just by watching.
Once you’ve got it make sure you spend some time combining the two push shots together in both a regular and random fashion. Once you can do that you have mastered the four basic strokes and can move on the the final stage of training.
Day 8 – Serve
The majority of beginners use a plain 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. You can also choose whether you prefer serving with your forehand, backhand or a combination of both. Some people find one side easier than the other.
I believe 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…
The ‘ghost serve’ is a particular type of heavy backspin serve where the ball has so much backspin on it that it actually bounces back into the net. You don’t need to worry about that at the moment but the principle of generate a huge amount of backspin is helpful.
Below a video of a young player attempting the ghost serve. This first serve isn’t a ‘ghost serve’ because it only bounces twice before dropping off the end of the table. However, this is pretty much what you want to try and do with your heavy backspin serve, so copying that first one is a good idea. The ball stayed pretty low and had plenty of backspin.
Serve like that and an inexperienced opponent will almost certainly put the ball straight into the net. If they have played a bit of table tennis (or work out how to return it) they will start pushing that serve back. That’s OK. You can then get into a pushing rally and out-push them with your consistency, placement and variation.
And here’s an example of the fastest ever table tennis serve by Japanese wonderkid Asuka Sakai.
While you don’t need to attempt to copy this technique you should notice how Asuka is;
- Letting the ball drop very close to table height before making contact.
- Hitting the ball very close to the end line on his side of the table.
These are two vital ingredients in the recipe for creating a super fast serve. Don’t expect to be serving like Asuka Sakai just yet (he has spent years working on his serves) but master those two points and will be able to serve fast enough to catch out the majority of recreational players and beginners. Especially if you are varying your serves; some fast ones and some with heavy backspin.
You will be able to continue working on these two serves during days 9 and 10 so don’t worry if you don’t feel 100% confident with them just yet.
Day 9 – Return of Serve
Returning serves can be a very tricky business. There are countless combinations of spin, speed and placement that can cause serves to do all sorts of things.
When receiving a serve you typically need to try and work out what type of serve your opponent is using, track the placement of the serve, adjust your positioning, decide on the best possible shot to use to return the serve, and then actually execute your return successfully. This is why the majority of beginners and intermediate players really struggle returning serves. It is often the weakest part of their game and fill them with dread and indecision.
But it doesn’t have to be like that!
The most important part of returning a serve is working out which type of spin is on the ball. Once you know that you can decide which shot you need to play to return it. If they have put topspin on the serve you need to drive it back. If they have put backspin on the serve you need to push it back. It’s that simple. It all comes down to ‘reading’ the spin on the ball.
But what about sidespin?
Most of the time you can actually just get away with driving a sidespin serve as you would a topspin serve. Aim for the center line and even with plenty of sidespin the ball should still land on the table. You should be trying to drive your opponents serve if you can. This is a more attacking stroke and will put you in a better position for the rally. Only if you see the serve is backspin do you need to think about pushing it.
At the beginner level most players aren’t getting that much spin on their serves. This makes them much easier to return. It is only as you progress and start to come up against stronger players that you need to learn a bit more about reading and returning the different kinds of spin and adjusting your strokes.
Here’s a video by online table tennis coach Tao Li that goes into a bit more detail on how to return heavy spin serves.
Like I said; you probably won’t need to worry about that too much at this stage as few beginner are able to serve to that level. Instead, just remember…
Look to return every serve with a drive, unless you see that they have used backspin in which case you should return with a push. Simple.
Day 10 – Match Play
Now it’s time to put everything together into match play. Here is the basic strategy I propose;
- Service = You should serve 50% fast and 50% heavy backspin.
- Return = You should try and play a drive stroke unless the ball has backspin.
- Rallying = If the ball is topspin, drive it. If the ball is backspin, push it.
- Winning points = The majority of your points should come from out-rallying your opponent.
However, we all have different strengths and weaknesses and it would be foolish not to adjust your strategy accordingly. You should spend your final day (or five hours) trying different things out in your matches and deciding how you like to play.
- Do you prefer to serve or receive? Why?
- Are you better at drives or pushes?
- Are you stronger with your forehand or your backhand?
- Is your positioning and footwork a strength or a weakness?
Once you have a good understanding of your abilities you can tweak my basic strategy and come up with some tactics of your own.
For example, if you are better at driving than pushing then you might want to serve 75% super fast and only 25% heavy backspin. If you serve heavy backspin you will likely get stuck in a pushing rally which isn’t ideal if you are weak at pushing. However, it’s still good to serve heavy backspin some of the time.
Or, if you are much stronger on the forehand than the backhand then you might want to think a bit more carefully about your placement. When rallying you could aim more into your opponent’s forehand and this stops them from having an angle into your wide backhand. When serving fast you might want to avoid going wide to your opponent backhand as in this situation their most likely return would be into your backhand.
There are loads of complex match strategies and tactics online but at this stage I would encourage you to stay away from them until you are comfortable with the basics and can beat the majority of other beginners with your consistency. It’s not worth going for risky shots, or trying to play strokes that turn backspin into topspin, at this stage as you will likely make so many unforced errors that your opponent will win off of your mistakes.
Focus your efforts on improving your consistency and placement so that you can be the one winning off of other’s errors.
If you’ve mastered those 10 fundamental aspects of the sport of table tennis you will now be able to play the game competitively. You are still a long way from being an “expert” but you should be able to beat pretty much every non-table tennis player you come up against.
The next step for you is to continue perfecting these 10 fundamental skills (it can take years to attain complete mastery) and to move on to some of the more advanced table tennis strokes.
If you have enjoyed following this information and have been using it in your training please drop me an email and let me know how you got on. I would love to hear from you and answer any further questions you may have. You can reach me via ben [at] experttabletennis.com.
I am also thinking about trying this out with a beginner in real life and filming their progress over the 10 days to prove it’s possible to go from zero to competent player in just a couple of weeks. Stay tuned for more information on that!