The ABCs of Table Tennis

If you’ve had experience coaching sport you may have heard of the FUNdamentals of movement or the ABCs of physical literacy. These describe the key skills that underpin the majority of sports; agility, balance and coordination.

The theory is that if you can help kids develop these skills at an early age it will help them excel at any sport they later decide to pick up. I believe primary schools in particular are particularly big on this kind of thing at the moment and teaching what they call “multi-skills”.

For a brief introduction to what I’m talking about, check out the video below…

As a table tennis coach I take this to mean that a kid with excellent agility, balance and coordination will learn how to play much faster than one without these fundamental skills. I believe that is what they are saying. The agility, balance and coordination will act as a foundation to build the table tennis specific skills on top of and will make kids better at playing the game.

That got me thinking…

What if instead of hoping that kids turn up at our training sessions with these fundamental skills in place we instead develop a way to actually teach them these skills using table tennis? Wouldn’t that be a good use of time in the long run? An investment for the future?

And does it have to do limited to kids? Could adult beginners benefit from this type of fundamental sport and movement training too? After all, there are plenty of adults that struggle with these skills!

I encountered this first-hand during The Expert in  Year Challenge with Sam. He was the first to admit that he wasn’t naturally ‘sporty’ and lacked the ability to throw a ball correctly or do loads of other basic sporty things. At the beginning of the challenge we tried to ignore it but by the time we reached the second half of the year we realised we should have tackled it from the start.

I believe that everyone (yes, everyone) could benefit from working on the ABCs of table tennis and I’m going to use this blog post to introduce some ideas to you to try out at home or at your next training session.

I am going to change the order slightly (to balance, coordination, agility) because that makes more sense for progression.

1. Balance

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 at table tennis.

Table tennis is an active sport (honest) 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 keep your 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.

You can also do plenty of different shadow play drills to work on your balance (kind of like what Wang Wen Jie was doing in the video). Get used to developing this relaxed playing stance where you are able to quickly move your feet while maintaining balance and control. Perhaps try to shadow play some training routines but have balance as your focus.

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.

2. Coordination

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 (or improve faster) 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. The kids that start playing at 5 or 6 and go on to play internationally all do this kind of thing when they start out. 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 movement fundamentals and help you to improve faster once you begin learning the actual strokes.

Even if you can already play table tennis at a decent level I’m convinced that experimenting with different spins and patterns just bouncing the ball on your bat is a good use of your time and will transition into a great control and feeling for the ball when you go back on the table.

3. Agility

Agility is the most advanced of the three which is why it comes last (even though it begins with A). Skills that come 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 you 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. Perhaps ask your coach if they can arrange some agility training for the last 10 minutes of your training session, or organise it yourself. You can buy lots of expensive agility equipment if you like (and some bits are very useful) but you don’t need to. You could simply put things down on the floor to weave in and out of.

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.

Just Do It

In summary…

  • Balance, coordination and agility are the building blocks for all future sporting success and therefore 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 the fundamentals and make sure you find a way to incorporate them into your weekly training.