I’ve spent the last few months thinking about how we (the table tennis community) practice; why we do the things we do and if there are any better ways to go about it.
In my mind there is no argument that at present the number one priority in table tennis practice is perfecting technique.
Go on any coaching course and you’ll see the content split up nicely into sections on how to play the perfect forehand drive, or push, or block.
Ask any coach to watch you practice and give you some tips and you’ll probably hear something like this, “Your wrist was slightly bent” or “Maybe tweak your grip slightly” or “Try and rotate your waist a little more”. I have to admit if you ask me for tips I’ll probably spout out something similar.
Go to a table tennis club and looking at what players are practicing. You’ll probably see some just hitting forehand to forehand or backhand to backhand while others do a footwork drill.
Nobody would say that technique was the only important thing.
No, of course you need good tactics, correct decision making, physical fitness and speed and the mental toughness to stay positive and play your best.
However, all those other aspects of the game appear rather inferior when compared to the all important technique.
In this post I’ll be making the point that perhaps technique isn’t as important as we think it is and especially when we are first starting out in table tennis (either as adults picking it up for the first time or children starting the sport).
Sharath Kamal Achanta is #51 in the world!
Have you heard of Sharath Kamal Achanta?
You probably have because he’s India’s top player and currently ranked #51 in the world!
My inspiration for this post came from a post I saw on Facebook the other day by TableTennisDaily promoting the German League matches. The image they featured of Sharath you can see at the top of this post.
As a coach, my first reaction when I saw the image was, “Wow, his technique looks a bit iffy!”
- For starters, Sharath appears to be using quite a backhand-oriented grip which you’d think would make his forehand weak.
- Then I notice his bent wrist which surely can’t be helping him transfer 100% of the power from his arm into the ball as some of it is lost going through the wrist.
- He’s a bit too close to the ball (perhaps his footwork has let him down)
- His arm is quite bent at the elbow (maybe about 70°). I begin to think, “He’d be able to generate more power with less effort if he has a slightly greater angle at the elbow”.
After all these thoughts had rushed through my head I started scrolling down to read the comments.
Ah, it appears I’m not the only one thinking this…
Emorek-eks Prettyboiswag Sinclair says, “his hands reminds me of how i use 2 hold my racket lol **hides face** stush”.
It’s not until this point that it dawns on me;
Who am I? And who is Emorek-eks Prettyboiswag Sinclair? We’re both sitting behind our computers thinking, “Yeah he’s a good player but his technique could do with a bit of work!”
Lets not forget this is one of the best players in the world we’re talking about.
And I bet we weren’t the only ones.
And it’s not our fault. Or at least I don’t think it is, because ever since we started playing table tennis we’ve been told over-and-over how important it is to have good technique. That was what my coaches told me, as they had me play forehand drives over-and-over again for months until my technique was near enough flawless. Then we did it all again for all the other shots. I bet Emorek has gone through something similar.
As a coach, I must have told hundreds of players to make tiny adjustments to their grip because once upon a time somebody else had done the same to me and told me it was really important. And I’ve done this with every part of my players games, constantly tweaking minor “faults” in the hunt for perfection.
Important but not all important
I’m not saying technique isn’t important. Of course it is. Correct (or orthodox) technique has developed over decades as players and coaches have experimented and decided what is the most efficient way to play certain strokes.
What I’m saying is perhaps it’s not as important as we think.
Perhaps the ROI (return on investment) we get from working on improving our technique is lower than what we can achieve from working on other parts of our game, for example service and return. After all, in a game how often are you given the chance to play 5 forehand drives in a row, let alone 50!
One observation that I’ve made over the last few years of coaching is that very often we can spend months working on a certain stroke in practice, until a player has a near-perfect forehand topspin, in theory, but then it falls apart when they start playing matches. Against a robot or a steady forehand block they look like a top player but once they get into a game the errors begin to creep in and they revert to whatever “weird and wonderful” shot they feel confident in.
I’ve also noticed that technique training is not particularly enjoyable and it certainly doesn’t give beginners the “early victories” they need to gain a bit of self-confidence and prevent early dropout.
Perhaps the ideal way to create a future champion is to start young with lots of technique training. After all in China they have five year olds playing forehand to forehand drives for hours on end until they are perfect and can hits hundreds without a mistake, and table tennis is doing pretty well in China.
But in England (or the United States or India or wherever you are in the world) we don’t have the luxury of 5 year olds that live in table tennis schools and play for hours each and every day (and we shouldn’t want this either), so we probably need to take a different approach. These Chinese kids are highly motivated to keep going despite the strenuous and repetitive training right from the start. Don’t forget that if you’ve spent your whole life playing table tennis you don’t have much choice but to keep going and give it your all because without it you probably don’t have that much going for you!
So what’s the solution?
I’m currently reading The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss (I highly recommend any and all of his books). It’s not all about cooking. The strap-line of the book is “The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life”.
Tim is a huge fan of the 80/20 principle of deconstructing skills and discovering the 20% of work that leads to 80% of the results. The basic idea is that in any field 20% of the work creates 80% of the results and on the flip-side, the other 80% of work only adds the extra 20%.
I was inspired by this concept and tried to think about how it would apply to table tennis. My thoughts…
The hours and hours spent trying to perfect technique is the 80% of work, the bulk of our table tennis practice. But it only translates into 20% of our results. That’s not to say it’s a waste of time, it does contribute to and improve our performance but it’s not the major chunk.
I think that the practice we do on our serve, return, 3rd ball and fourth ball is the 20% of practice that leads to 80% of the results.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of weeks and I’m convinced!
After all, our goal is not to look perfect when knocking up, it’s to win points (and therefore matches).
Is technique important? Yes!
Will correct technique help us win more points and therefore matches? Yes!
Is correct technique the end goal of our practice? No!
I’m going to leave it there for now. I hope I’ve made you think and I’d love to hear your thought on these ideas. Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you!
Over the next few weeks (and months and years) you’re going to see a lot more content along these lines on my blog. I really believe that this is the way we need to go, both as players and coaches, if we want to maximise the performance benefits we receive from our practice.
I’m very excited to dig into this idea more deeply and I hope you are too.