If you have spent even a tiny amount of time working with a coach to try and improve your table tennis I bet you’ve been told to try and be more ‘relaxed’ when you play. For us coaches, it seems to be one of our favourite things to say! But what does it mean and how can you learn to play in a more ‘relaxed’ way?
If there is one thing that Sam gets annoyed at during our sessions (there’s way more than one), it’s me telling him he needs to be more ‘relaxed’. To be fair to him I probably throw it out there a couple of times per training session and we’ve had close to 250 of them by now!
And I know it annoying. I’m a player too. When we went to Denmark in the summer every single coach I worked with told me I was too tense and needed to relax more when I played. Often it would be the first thing they’d say to me. Sometimes they would even say it to me while I was consciously trying to be more relaxed!
Here are just a few of the ‘relax’ notes I took while on the training camp;
- Istvan told me I was tense. He was right! I need to relax my upper body, shoulder, arm and especially traps. Then I also need aggressive feet that do the work. I’ve had lazy feet recently.
- Being relaxed with your upper body is so important.
- For backhand open up he said two things. Firstly, the swing is too big and my bat finishes way to high. Must finish more forwards so I can still see it. Secondly, I need to relax my shoulders and not shrug them up. Let them drop, hang, and relax. These two pointers should really help my backhand open up.
- I also need to practice my long fast serve like Lei Yang. It is too slow. I need to relax my arm and sharply twist my body.
- I need to do all the simple things… relax more, keep my body weight forwards, play more spin shots, be aggressive with my defense and clever.
- Lei Yang said I was too stiff and tense when I play. He said to relax in between strokes, to let my shoulders drop and that will improve my technique.
- Lei Yang said I was injured because I am too tense in my traps and back and shoulders. I must relax.
- Being relaxed is way more important than I thought. Must be super relaxed. Use the fingers not the shoulders.
- Fang says when I shrug my shoulders I bring my weight up and make it very hard to move. If I fully relax and let my shoulders hang forwards then my weight is lower and it is easier to move.
It came up again and again and again. Relax the upper body. Relax your shoulders. Relax the arm. So, although it’s annoying to be told the same thing constantly we need to acknowledge that the reason coaches keep saying it, over-and-over, is because they know that…
- It’s really important.
- You still haven’t got it.
It’s even one of J.O. Waldner’s top 10 table tennis tips!
Waldner Tip #3: Develop a relaxed technique
“Table tennis requires a tremendous amount of practice. Always try to play as relaxed as possible. This will increase your chances to play relaxed even in tight situations and at the same time decrease your susceptibility for injuries. Personally, I have managed to avoid lengthy injuries, which is one of the reasons why I have been able to remain at the top for so many years.”
It takes practice to master playing in a relaxed way. Since we went to Denmark in July I have barely practiced myself. I fully understand what I need to do (be more relaxed) and I know that it will improve my game but because I haven’t actually spent the time practicing being more relaxed when I play I know that I haven’t actually made any progress. If I was to play a competitive match today I would be just as tense as I was in July. It takes practice and time to develop this relaxed technique.
This post is going to go into detail regarding exactly what it means to be ‘relaxed’ when you play (I know that plenty of players struggle to fully grasp what this means) and how to go about becoming more relaxed. But first… here’s a photo of Istvan telling me to relax my shoulders!
What is ‘relaxed’ table tennis?
Here is a great paragraph taken from Jim Langley’s table tennis site that explains relaxed table tennis…
“The ball weighs next to nothing, and it’s almost always spinning. To deal with this, it is extremely important to be relaxed in your body, arm and hand. You should grip the paddle lightly—just tighly enough to keep it in place in your hand. Even when you want to hit a high ball for a winner, you must remain relaxed like this. Even when you have to run 10 feet across the room to get to the ball, you have to remain relaxed when you contact the ball. It’s one of the important secrets of rapid improvement. Most people are much too tight and hit the ball much too hard. Try to feel the ball actually touch the rubber every single time you contact the ball. Practice bouncing the ball on the paddle, and letting it roll on the surface. Get the feel for the rubber just grazing the ball ever so gently. Breathe in and exhale fully between points to relieve tension and relax your entire body.”
I hope that helps you understand a little more. The first thing I want to do is give some examples of relaxed/loose play compared to tense/tight play. It can be difficult to get your head around what it means to be relaxed. When I first started mentioning it to Sam he couldn’t quite get your head around how you can be relaxed and powerful as a table tennis player. He saw them as opposites. He thought if he played relaxed he would also be slow and soft, but this isn’t the case. Watch any of the top players and you’ll notice that they are both powerful and loose, fast and relaxed. It’s a strange combination but it is vital to high performance table tennis.
The video below is from Sam’s recent match against Jason Morley at the Horsham Spinner tournament. Now Sam still struggles with playing relaxed table tennis but Jason, his opponent, is a particularly tense player. I don’t mean to single out Jason (we spoke in between the matches and he seemed like a really nice guy) but he is not a relaxed player and it brings down his level of play. I’d encourage you to watch a few points from the video below (Jason is the guy in the navy blue t-shirt) and then I’ll point what Jason could potentially improve in order to develop a more relaxed style.
- Jason is keeping his muscles in a very tense state throughout the match. He rarely relaxes or shakes his muscle out in between points. In particular, if you watch him waiting to receive serve you can see that he is very stiff and his upper body muscle are tense and not relaxed.
- I would assume that Jason has quite a tight grip on his bat. This is going to cause his muscle to tighten and it makes it difficult to use the wrist and forearm in shots. Instead he plays a lot from his shoulder or using whole body movements that require a lot of energy and are not very efficient.
- Having a loose wrist and arm allows you to make all of the tiny adjustments you need to make in order to adapt to the constantly changing spin, speed and placement of the ball. Playing tense and stiff will therefore leads to errors as you fail to adjust and ‘feel’ the ball.
- One thing that being very tense does seem help is fast movements and reactions. You can see that Jason is crouched down and moving his feet a lot and very quickly. The lower half of his body is actually doing a pretty good job and it should be aggressive and fast. It’s the upper half of his body that suffers from being tense.
The next video I’d like you to watch is of Daniel Moses. I love watching Daniel play because he is one of the most relaxed players I’ve ever seen (both physically and mentally). His body is extremely loose, perhaps even too loose, and you can see that he is calm in his mind when he is playing. Just watch the first couple of minute from the video below and you’ll see what I mean! He is playing Liam McTiernan, who at the time was one of the best juniors in England (Liam is now a senior and ranked #44).
- The first you notice is that the fact that Daniel is super relaxed with his body helps him to be happy and enjoy the game. In my opinion this gives him a big advantage mentally over lots of other players.
- His serves are fantastic because his arm and wrist are so loose that he can do whatever he wants with them and generate all sorts of heavy spin and deceptive serves.
- His relaxed ready position gives him a great block and also means that he is able to counter attack pretty much whenever he likes. If you are tense you often rush, snatch at the ball and end up having to block or hit awkwardly. Daniel looks like he has all the time in the world as he waits for the ball to come to him and then has a swing.
- The only big weakness to Daniel’s game is his footwork. His super relaxed attitude has crept down into the lower half of his body and he has super relaxed feet and legs too. This isn’t ideal. It means that you can see him off balance quite often and he appears to kind of ‘wander’ around as he plays instead of quickly ‘springing’ into position like Liam. It would be difficult to play at a really high level with this super relaxed attitude to footwork and movement.
And that seems to be one of the biggest problems with the whole being relaxed while you play table tennis thing! Because you don’t actually want your whole body to be relaxed, not too relaxed anyway. You need your upper body to be loose and relaxed so that you can adjust and play all those lovely free, natural strokes but you need your lower body to be crouched down, ready to pounce, and explosive.
Jason has got the explosive part right in his legs. He is desperate to get to the ball and is down nice and low trying to pounce on everything and be explosive. The only problem is that that attitude of being aggressive and explosive has also infiltrated his upper body causing him to snatch at the ball and play some quite stiff and jerky strokes.
Daniel has fully understand the important of being relaxed with his arms. He seems like he has all the time in the world as he waits for the ball and then plays these ridiculous straight-arm forehand topspin strokes. He is loose and that gives him incredible feeling and the ability to accelerate his arm very quickly. The only problem is that that attitude of being loose and free has also infiltrated his lower body causing him to move quite slowly, if at all, and often end up off balance.
Combining the two is very difficult!
How to play in a more relaxed way
This is the important bit. I’m going to talk about exactly what you need to do with your body in order to play ‘relaxed’ table tennis and I’m going to give you a few tips and exercises that can help you to actually be more relaxed. The first step is understanding. The second is application. Sam and I already understand how to be relaxed when we play (step one) but we haven’t actually spent enough time applying it to our game (step two) to have it transition into our natural style.
It all starts with your grip. You want to have a loose grip. I was once told that your grip on the bat should be the same as holding a small bird in one hand. You want to hold it tight enough that it isn’t going to escape but not tight enough to hurt it. The way most people hold their table tennis bats they would have crushed the bird long ago!
The other thing you need to become aware of is that there is a good chance you are holding the bat much tighter than you think. It’s easy to think, “loose grip, yeah I do that”, and not realise that actually once you start playing, or after you’ve served, you actually revert to a very tight grip. You are unlikely to be holding the bat too loose so I think everybody could make an active effort to hold the bat looser the next they play and see how they get on.
One final thing. When I was in Denmark one of the Chinese coaches, Fang, had me do a multiball drill where I was only allowed to pinch the bat with my thumb and index finger. My other three fingers had to be sticking out and not touching the bat. At first it felt horrible but after a while I understood what she was getting at. “Don’t hold the bat with your palm”, she said, “feeling comes from your fingers”. She was right. After doing that for about 15 minutes it felt completely different when I went back to my normal grip. Sure my grip looked exactly the same to anyone else, but I could feel that I was now predominantly holding the bat with my thumb and index finger instead of my three other fingers and my palm. This was a brilliant coaching tool and one that I recommend everyone tries. Give it at least 15 minutes as it takes a while to get used to it.
The wrist is so important in table tennis. A coach once told me that as you improve as a player the joints you use to play your shots move down through your arm. Beginners start off playing flat ‘tap’ or ‘pat’ shots from their shoulder, once they get a little better they learn to play from their elbow so that they can spin a bit more and ‘brush’ the ball, then they learn to relax their wrist and use that to get extra acceleration and spin.
You need to have a loose wrist. Your wrist should drop below the ball during the backswing and then flick into the ball as you make contact. This is really important on the backhand strokes but the wrist is also a valuable addition to your forehand. It’s difficult to learn though. This is what the top players are doing. First, you need to make sure that your static wrist is in the right position.
Not only do plenty of players not use their wrist in their shots but plenty of them have it in completely the wrong position. This means that even if they were to loose it up it still wouldn’t do much good. If you wrist is point up when you make contact with the ball, sometimes referred to as a lollipop shot, then it’s in the wrong place. There should be a straight line from your elbow to the tip of your index finger (assuming you are a shakehands player). You need to get this right first before you can start thinking about adding wrist.
On your backhand you want to use a Frisbee technique when adding wrist to your shot. When you throw a Frisbee you draw your wrist back and then flick it forwards. You need to do the same in table tennis and you want to make contact with the top of the ball. If you drop your wrist down too much you are going to end up flicking it across your body to the side (instead of forwards) and making contact with the back of the ball.
This is a lot to take in but just remember that a loose grip should lead to a relaxed wrist and a relaxed wrist is going to help you play much nicer strokes, provided it is in the right position and moving in the right direction.
The biggest problem I see with the elbow, that leads to a player becoming tense, is having too small an angle at the elbow. What I mean by that is their forearm is too close to their bicep. I used to call them ‘T.Rex arms’ when I was coaching at school.
This is something that Sam has struggled with. The angle at his elbow is often only about 60 degrees which means that his hands are up in front of his face like in a boxing guard position. This is good for a boxer, they want tense muscles so that it doesn’t hurt as much when they are punched, but not so great for a table tennis player. We aren’t going to be punched so we need to let our guard down, keep our hands lower and in front of us, and increase the angle at our elbow.
To play relaxed table tennis you need to get used to opening up your elbow for shots. This allows you to accelerate your forearm and generate more spin and power with less effort. If your forearms are always up though you are going to struggle to do this. You should keep shaking out your elbows. Let your arms hang straight in between points. Get used to having your arm close to straight in the backswing phase of your shot. Relaxing your elbow and having the freedom to open it up is going to help you play a much more relaxed game.
Good posture tells us to stand up straight and keep our shoulders back and chest out. This is good for you. You should sit, stand, walk and run like this. But you shouldn’t play table tennis like this and it is going to be difficult to have a relaxed shoulder if your shoulders are back.
The easiest way to tell if a player has their shoulders in the right place is to look at their back. If their shoulders are back then their back will be straight. Again, it would look good if they were weight lifting or picking up something heavy but it is no good for table tennis. Look at any professional player, playing in a relaxed way with a relaxed technique, and you’ll see that their back is actually curved. Their shoulders are forwards, not backwards, and their spine is pushing out, not tucked in between their shoulder blades.
So shoulders forwards. The best way to understand this is imagine you are a monkey or gorilla. Think about how they would stand (leaning forwards with a curved back) and what they would do with their arms (having their shoulders forwards and arms hanging/swinging underneath them). This might seem silly but this is pretty much the kind of position you want to be in. Get into that kind of gorilla position and then lift up your forearms so that the angle at your elbow is approximately 90 degrees, or slightly larger. Done.
Your traps (known as the trapezius muscle) make up a diamond at the top of your back. They go from your neck, all the way down to your mid back, and out over the bit in between your neck and your shoulders. Among other things they are your shrugging muscles. Shrug your shoulders up and you are using your traps.
I play with particularly tight traps. That is actually what Istvan is pointing out to me in the photo at the start of this post. He is shrugging his shoulders saying, “You look like this when you play, you need to relax your traps”, and I’m touching my traps saying, “Yeah, it all comes up once I start playing. I need to keep it down”.
I see this in plenty of other players too. Sam does the same thing. Once you shrug up your shoulders your arms lift. It can all lift about six inches in total. It is really difficult to play a relaxed style when you are constantly tense in your traps. It like when you are outside on a cold day and you shrug your shoulders up to your ears and contract your muscles to help keep you warm. Well, that contraction, that tightness, is going to lead to poor technique and probably injuries. I injured by back a few days into the camp and Lei Yang, my Chinese coach for the first week, said it was my technique that had done it. And he should know. He’s the technical trainer for the German National Team!
The importance of the core
This has been an absolutely mammoth post (I’m on 3,500 words already) so I am going to wrap it all up here with one last thought. It could potentially be the most important though, as it addresses a potential solution that may help you have a relaxed upper body and an explosive lower body when playing table tennis.
This was something that Fang, my Chinese coach for the second week in Denmark, told me in a one-to-one multiball session. She took me to one side and got me to take a big breath in through my nose. As I did my chest came out, my shoulders went back, and my center of mass came up. Then she got me to exhale all that air through my nose. As I did my shoulders dropped, my body naturally crouched down, and I could feel my center of mass come down to my stomach. My core of was tense. It felt heavy but balanced. Everything above my core felt light and relaxed.
Try it yourself. Stand up and take a deep breathe in through your nose. Hold it for a few seconds. Then exhale fully through your nose. You should be able to feel your center of mass move up and then down. You should feel balanced after exhaling. You should feel solid around your core. And it should feel like a good position for moving quickly. Also, your arms and shoulders should feel relaxed and loose. Able to play shots.
I’m going to film a YouTube video of me doing this at some point because I think it’s really valuable. Once I do I’ll add it to this post and send out an email to the ETT Academy so you guy can all see it.
Remember that you want to play table tennis in the state you are in after exhaling fully through your nose. You want to be low, balanced, solid in the core, and with your shoulder and arms loose so that they can play shots.
We (Sam and I) spoke to Mark Simpson via Skype today and he gave us the mantra; “fast feet, soft hands”. I really like that and I think if you can combine this breathing exercise with that mantra you are in a very good place to be playing ‘relaxed’ table tennis.
So that’s how to play ‘relaxed’ table tennis in 4,000 words or less. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the subject. Please leave a comment below and add to the discussion.
If you’ve enjoyed this post please consider sharing it and helping me to help more table tennis players improve their game.