While flicking through some table tennis videos on YouTube I came across this one of Paul Drinkhall’s multiball training.
A big thanks to Table Tennis Talk for the video and I especially liked the use of the two camera angles.
I’m not sure how old the video is. It was published May 2012 but, from the shot of Danny Lawrence at 3:43, I’m guessing it’s at least a couple of years old now. Possibly from around 2010.
In this post I will be analysing what it is that Paul does in his multiball training. I wont be attempting to critique his technique or performance. My aim is to explain the drills taking place, so that you can try them yourself and to point out a few coaching tips I picked up from the video.
In the video we see Paul perform ten ‘sets’ of multiball practice. It is worth noting that these ‘sets’ typically last between 30-60 seconds. This is high-intensity training that can only be sustained for short periods of time. You will also notice that rest breaks are quite short as well, usually around 30 seconds between sets.
Paul begins with three sets of regular movement. This is followed by three sets of irregular movement and then three sets of more ‘point-like’ scenarios involving a short ball, then a long push (forcing Paul to open-up), followed by a few shots of free play. The final set is just a quick glimpse at a topspin, out-of-the-hand, multiball feed.
So let’s start at the beginning. The first two minutes of the video show Paul completing three sets of a regular movement exercise. In this case it’s one ball to the backhand, followed by one ball to the forehand. Quite simple to understand and often known as a ‘one-one’ movement exercise.
The first thing you’ll notice is how good the coach is at feeding multiball. He delivers perfect balls for Paul to topspin and is able to find a fast pace or rhythm. It can be annoying for players and feel awkward if the multiball feed is irregular in frequency or the coach is fumbling over the balls.
When I counted the sets I discovered that each of these three sets contained 50 balls. So Paul hit 150 balls in total during his regular movement practice.
After timing the sets I realised that each one was exactly 33 seconds long. This is testament to the consistent pace of the coach but it’s also interesting to see it around the 30 second mark. From my knowledge of sport science, a 30 second duration seems to be ideal for this type of anaerobic training. It works the player physically hard enough to start seeing adaptations and improvements in fitness, endurance and stamina. A few times during the video we see Paul stop a set prematurely himself if it exceeds this ’30ish second’ limit.
Paul then movement on to some irregular movement multiball training. This starts at about 2:10, if you’re interested. This particular drill seems to be one or two balls to either the backhand, middle or forehand. Again Paul is topspinning, off a topspin feed from the coach.
This is a particularly challenging exercise because of a number of factors…
- The irregular nature of the number of balls (it can be either one or two)
- The irregular nature of the positioning of the balls (they can go to three positions, backhand, middle or forehand)
- The speed of the drill (which is slightly faster than you would expect in a game situation)
- The duration of the drill (which is over 30 seconds, much longer than your typical rally)
This exercise is great for multiball training because the player can make mistakes and still continue to practice. We don’t want to spend all session picking the ball up from the floor. It is also much more specific to the end goal, which is always to improve our performance in matches. The irregular nature of the drill makes it much more like a rally in the game.
The other point I would like to highlight is the importance of overload in training. This is the idea of pushing yourself beyond the usual competition environment or standard in training, creating increase performance when you go back to standard competition conditions. Overload is a concept used in training for all elite-level sports and I’m learning a bit more about it at the moment in Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’ (which I will be writing a book review of when I’m finished).
The fast speed and the increased duration of the drill, when compared to the demands of a standard point, highlight the fact that this is overload training. Paul is being pushed outside of his comfort zone in an attempt to help him increase his performance long-term. He may be making more mistake now than he would like, and to an onlooker he may be ‘failing’ when he is caught out (as you can see in the photo to your left where he ends up playing a shot behind his back!), or misses a shot but in the long run this is deliberate practice. He is learning; to see the ball earlier, to read the direction of the ball more accurately, and to pick the correct shot faster.
For want of a better phrase I have called this final section ‘point-like’ scenarios. If you have any suggestions please leave me a comment. I’d love to change it.
Starting at around 4:20, Paul moves on to this more specific exercise. This drill involves a short touch from the coach, which Paul returns with a touch, then a long push or ‘dig’ by the coach to anywhere on the table. Paul ‘opens-up’ off this ball with a topspin and then receives three to five irregular balls to either his backhand, middle or forehand.
Paul is able to have slightly longer sets for this exercise as there is a brief pause before each new short touch ball. His first set last just over a minute, the second is 40 seconds and the third about 30 seconds. He seems to have about a 30 second break in between each set to rest, recover and mentally get ready to start again.
This is a great exercise because it is so specific to the type of situations a player encounters in a game. There are also hundreds of ways you can change the elements of the drill slightly to create a different situation. I am sure that the top players have probably, at some point, practiced every single situation that could arise from a serve, return, 3rd ball, 4th, ball, 5th ball situation. This gives them a massive advantage in matches. Instead of being surprised by a return of service or 3rd ball attack they are able to think, “I remember this from training”, or even have a good go predicting their opponents return, based on their own shot selection.
Matthew Syed spoke about this in reference to chess players remembering thousands of different possible moves that often happen in a game and remembering how they all fit together. Well the same is almost certainly true of table tennis and this type of training can really work to build up that database of scenarios in a player’s head.
Topspin ‘Out-of-the-Hand’ Feed
The last thing I would like to highlight is what we see in the final 15 seconds of the video. It’s hard to work out what exercise ball has moved on to before the video is cut but we do get to see a different type of multiball feed. Before, the coach has been feeding topspin balls from a bounce feed but now he moves on to feeding straight out of his hand. This is great for a bit of variation and can replicate the topspin to topspin rallies that characterise much of the modern game. Just thought that was worth mentioning.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article and found it useful. I will be writing more posts on multiball training in the future as I believe it’s vital to table tennis coaching and practice in the 21st century. Also, I’m working my way through Matthew Syed’s book and I’ll get a decent review of that up on ExpertTableTennis.com once I’m finished.