Are Table Tennis Drills a Waste of Time?

table tennis drills“Hang on a second! Did he just say what I thought he said?”

“A coach, questioning the effectiveness of drills, surely there’s been a mistake!”

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone mad. It’s worth pointing out as well that I’ve spent the last 14 years doing table tennis drills (as a player), and the last two teaching them to my students.

However, it’s always a good idea to look at things with “fresh eyes” every once in a while and not just accept the norm as the ideal.

You may be thinking, “What’s brought all this on?” and I guess the answer is time. Time and a lot of reading (and a bit of thinking).

I’m assuming by now that most of you know that I’ve been pretty busy this summer; getting married, moving flat and going on honeymoon. If you were wondering why the blog has been so quiet lately, there’s your answer. [If you’d like to see a photo of my new wife and me at our wedding I’ve added one at the end of the post.]

But back to the topic at hand; the effectiveness of table tennis drills. Why am I now questioning them?

Well, I spent a fair amount of time over the summer reading various books about learning. I guess you could say it kind of became a bit of an obsession! I read books about mastery and how to become a master at anything. I read books about how to learn skills more rapidly. I read books about the importance of being creative in your chosen discipline and experimenting with it. I then started following and reading some blogs and even dug into some of the academic literature on learning and acquiring skills.

After gaining a number of opinions and ideas on the process of becoming an expert I began thinking about how this would all apply to table tennis, and in particular our table tennis practice. After all, I think the majority of us would agree that most of the work that’s done to help us master table tennis takes place in the training hall. I thought about what makes up a table tennis training session and it occurred to me that the answer for most people would be drills. If you are a table tennis player that is serious about improving and developing your game then you will likely spend a large chunk (probably 50%+) of your practice time going through various drills and therefore these drills are extremely important!

There are many different types of drills…

  • Movement drills
  • Irregular drills
  • Service and receive drills
  • Footwork drills
  • Drills for particular strokes
  • Off-the-table drills
  • Multiball drills
  • Robot drills

…so it can be hard to clump all “drills” together in the same category. Please just bear with me.

I have to admit at this point that I fear this will be quiet a long one (so if you’re not feeling in the mood for that right this moment then perhaps now would be a good time to bookmark this post and come back to it another time). I’d also like to let it be known that I haven’t reached a firm conclusion on how I feel about “drills” in general but during the course of this post I’ll layout my opinions on both sides, provide some recommendations and then allow you to make up your own mind.

Does that sound like fun? If so, then off we go…

Why do we do drills?

I guess there are many reasons we perform drills in our table tennis practice and drills have a number of benefits. For starters, they are extremely versatile. There are drills to work on your movement, your accuracy, your speed, your power, your consistency, your technique, your timing, and so on. In this sense most aspects of table tennis can be practiced in some form under the umbrella term of “drills”.

Drills are also a great way of ensuring uniformity and quality within a group of players. If you set a team of players the same drills to do, in the same order, in the same sessions, covering the same topics, year-after-year, you will likely be able to produce well-rounded players of a similar ability with all of the techniques you deem important. This is very important if you club has different sessions based on age or ability and you want your players to steadily progress through the levels of sessions.

Keep_It_Simple_Stupid2On a similar line is the fact that, as a coach, drills simplify the coaching process. Coaching players individually can be very difficult (sometimes impossible) if you have a large group of players, Drills are a great way of getting everybody involved and on task. However, this concerns me a little. I know from personal experience that setting lots of group drills in a training session makes coaching very easy. Therefore, “drills” will also appear favourable to coaches, especially less experienced coaches (or coaches that have lost their true passion for coaching). “Drills” are safe. Setting a few regular movement drills and having a wander around the training hall is unlikely to win you ‘Coach of the Year’ but it’s also unlikely to raise any eyebrows either.

As a player or a coach, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, or you can’t really be bothered, drills are definitely the way to go! We’ve all heard the phrase K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) but perhaps we’ve gone too far.

My point is this… Perhaps the real reason why we do so many drills in practice is that it’s best for the coaches, as opposed to being best for the players. Even if you have a good coach (or you are a good coach) it’s worth remembering this.

Are all drills pointless then?

No, I don’t think they are.

However, I think that too often drills are used as the norm or standard way of practicing. They are set, perhaps, with little thought into their purpose or objective and take up the bulk of a session.

Instead, I think that drills should be used in (and for) specific circumstances. At certain stages of development, certain types of drills are useful. Also, in certain situations or environments other types of drills may be beneficial.

My thinking is that we need to slightly alter our mindset so that when we are thinking about how to develop players we don’t automatically go straight to drills. Perhaps the fact that drills are so versatile has meant that we’ve thought we must use them for everything, when in fact all it meant was that we can use them for everything.

When are drills a good idea?

I’ve been thinking about which drills should be used during the different stages of development and why. I’m sure the following list wont include everything but here are some applications I thought of. For each drill I will mention the type of drill, the objective of the drill and the demographic of players it is for.

1. Regular movement drills to improve technique, footwork and consistency in beginner/improvers.

I recommend some regular movement drills (such as “backhand, middle, backhand, wide“) in my How to Play Table Tennis series. I also teach these drills to my own players. I think these types of drills, where you know where the ball is going, are a great way to perfect the technical aspects of your strokes.

For example, after spending a few sessions working on your forehand and backhand drives your technique has probably improved quite a bit. You can now keep a rally going, on the diagonals, and have tried playing the stroke down the line. Adding in a regular movement exercise, such as “backhand, middle, backhand, wide” or “two forehands, two backhands” is a great way to continue to practice your forehand and backhand drives in a slightly different context. The focus is still primarily on improving your basic technique but the variation in the movement drill will stop the process seeming so repetitive and tedious.

In this sense the drill is really being used as a bit of a cover-up. The primary objective is the same as before (when you were playing your strokes just on the diagonal), to improve your technique, but the pattern of the drill and the small amount of movement helps the learning process and increases your concentration and motivation.

As you improve, and master more difficult strokes, the regular movement drill should still be your first port of call after you have practiced a particular stroke or skill in isolation. So, once you have had a go at your forehand topspin and you feel you are making progress technically, then it’s time to set yourself a regular movement drill (such as “forehand wide, forehand middle”) and continue to practice your technique in a different context. This process can and should be applied to all of the new strokes and skills you acquire until they become automatic and you can perform them without conscious thought.

2. Regular movement drills to increase confidence (and help to “get your eye in”) in advanced players.

Once you have become an advanced player, and have mastered all of the various table tennis strokes, I think it’s time to stop relying on regular movement drills in your practice. You certainly shouldn’t be spending the bulk of your session practicing these types of drills.

Personally, looking back over my development as a player, I think this is a piece of advice I wish I’d had as a teenager. I probably reached this “advanced” stage at about 16. I had mastered all of the strokes; I could drive, push, topspin, loop, block, counter, open-up, lob, serve and receive serve quite well. It was now time for me to begin using all of these tools to start developing a style of play, learning how to control points and ultimately win matches and succeed in tournaments. Unfortunately, blissfully unaware that there was anything beyond regular movement drills, I continued to practice them and got better and better at performing them. It wasn’t until I moved to Grantham at 18 that I really saw all of the other ways to practice. I remember being painfully bad at any irregular drill that was set because I was so used to always knowing where the ball would go in practice. I also had this terrible habit of constantly backing away from the table in matches, as if the unexpected change of direction of the ball was constantly surprising me (which of course, it was).

That little story is a good example of when table tennis drills are a waste of time. Certain types of drills, for certain players, at least. I probably wasted much of the two years (from 16-18) doing those types of drills when I should have been working on the irregular part of my game, experimenting with spin/feeling and things like loop-to-loop, and planning points and my preferred methods of service and return.

Don’t make the same mistake.

My advice is this; regular movement drills should be used sparingly by advanced players. I recommend using one for five minutes at the start of a session (as a sort of warm-up, “getting your eye in” type exercise) or before matches at a tournament, to give you a bit of a boost in confidence and calm your nerves. The problem is that for advanced players regular movement drills can become a sort of crutch. They make you feel like you’re playing well and give you an inflated view of how good you are by making your practice too easy. You may leave the session thinking, “I was playing really well today” but in fact it’s just that you gave yourself a beginners practice session. And for an advanced player, a beginners practice session is a waste of time.

The other problem I come across occasionally are players that spend all their time practicing regular drills (or sometimes even just playing a stroke along a diagonal), never satisfied with their technique. They appear to be lost on a long journey to perfection and they never seem to get any closer to their destination. This, too, is a waste of time. Despite the importance of technique in table tennis, table tennis is not a sport where winners and losers are decided on the prettiness of their technique (such as diving or gymnastics). There comes a point where your technique is good enough and you need to focus your effort on other things. For advanced players this mean not becoming obsessed with the hunt for perfection in certain strokes.

3. Irregular movement drills to test technique in intermediate players.

In the same way that regular movement drills are a waste of time for advanced players, irregular movement drills are a waste of time for beginners. If you’re a beginner stay away from these for now!

A few times, as a young coach, I got a bit ahead of myself with some of my players and started setting them irregular drills when they really weren’t ready for them. It would either lead to a lack of confidence/despair in the player (struggling and failing to perform the drill) or it would causes them to lose all of their previously good technique as their attention shifted to the moving ball and they slowly reversed the positive effects of their previous training.

However, irregular movement drills can be great for intermediate players! If you are a player that can hit 100 forehands in a row, you’ve mastered the basic footwork/movement patterns and you can be consistent and accurate playing shots like a topspin and block then it’s time you started pushing yourself with some irregular drills.

I think these irregular drills work really well for testing technique. If you can perform the irregular movement drills without your technique deteriorating then you are truly on your way to mastering that particular stroke or skill. If the irregular nature of the drill leads you to alter your technique then you know that you’re not quite there yet. Remember, when you play a match the ball is going to be completely irregular in it’s direction!

4. Irregular movement drills to improve anticipation, speed, agility, balance (and everything else) in advanced players.

It’s definitely easier to come up with regular drills than irregular drills. As I coach I know this too well. However, if you are an advanced player, looking to improve any part of your game, I really believe you should be using irregular drills. Therefore, here I’m recommending the use of irregular drills (rather than regular drills) for advanced players that are trying to improve a certain aspect of their performance.

This use of drills is going to require a lot more planning and analysing than just saying “lets do an irregular drill, how about “one or two to the backhand, one to the forehand”. If we use drills in that way we are thinking about drills first instead of first understanding the problem or area we want to work on and then thinking about a drill we can come up with to tackle it.

A better way of practicing would be to think, “I have trouble hitting powerful backhand topspins down the line”. This is the problem and this is where we will start. Then, instead of just asking your partner to block with their forehand while you topspin backhands down the line, you need to think, “What kind of irregular drill can I use to help me practice and improve my backhand topspin down the line?”. My point is that if you simply get your partner to block with their forehand down the line for five minutes you may well finish the drill feeling like you’ve improved on a weakness. But often I think you’ll find that once you get back into a match scenario that backhand down the line is still troubling you and you don’t have the confidence to execute it.

As an example, here’s the sort of drill you could come up with…

You play a forehand counter to counter rally with your partner. At any point during the rally (which you are both playing at 80-90% of maximum speed) your partner can switch the ball down the line with either a block or a counter-topspin. You then move across and play a backhand topspin down the line (avoiding the temptation to either block the ball, which is too passive, or play a backhand topspin across the table, which is the predictable angle).

I believe that if irregular drills are used in this way, as a means to solving another problem and not as an end in themselves, then we’ll really be getting the most out of our practice.

5. Service and receive drills to create table tennis “plays” and help advanced players to plan their points.

This will be my final point of the article because I realise that it’s getting rather long!

If you’ve joined the Expert Table Tennis Academy, subscribing to my newsletter and getting yourself a free copy of my eBook (The Table Tennis Playbook), you’ll know all about my thoughts on the importance of planning your points and creating a few favourite “plays”.

In many other sports large chunks of training time are spent going through such plays or set-pieces that are constructed as plans to score goals or touchdowns or baskets. The reason they spend so much time working on these plays is that the plays lead directly to more points in a game, and more points in a game leads to winning games. I believe that the training of advanced table tennis players should follow these principles more closely.

Technique should be near enough sorted. Fitness levels should be high and just requiring maintenance. Now is the time for tactics! And service and receive drills are excellent for creating these winning tactics and “plays”.

So, if you count yourself as an advanced table tennis player I ask you this question…

Is your practice built around the principles of trying to find ways to win more points?

Because in table tennis there are no points for looking pretty.

It’s no good being a great practice partner if you can’t do it in the tournament hall.

So what now?

I hope that this post has given you something to chew over. I’ve certain had plenty of new ideas since I started writing it!

My next post (which will hopefully go live in a few days time) will be looking at some alternative methods of table tennis practice. I’m going to be thinking about some other things we could be doing in our practice time that may help us to develop faster and become better players.

Before then, I’d love to hear your opinion on this article and your thoughts on how best to maximise our table tennis practice time.

And for those of you that can still remember back to the first few paragraphs of this post… Here’s the photo.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this!

And as I said already, please let me know your thoughts. The comments box below is a great place to leave your opinion and start a discussion.

Part 2 coming soon…