There are probably lots of reasons why adult beginners generally find it more difficult to develop a correct technique than children. But one potential issue relates to the massive height difference.
That height difference – and its effect on how we learn to play table tennis – is what I’ll be writing about in this post. Specifically, I want to see if adults learning to play table tennis on your knees has any advantages for picking up the correct stroke techniques.
David vs Goliath
The average six-year-old boy is about 4 foot tall (roughly 120 cm). The majority of adult men in my beginners’ session at St John’s TTC are not far off 6 foot (roughly 180 cm). That’s a huge, and potentially very important, difference.
A table tennis table is 2.5 ft high. That means it reaches roughly the middle of the thigh for a 6-foot man but comes all the way up to the chest of a six-year-old boy. That is obviously going to make the stroke dynamics pretty different!
I tend to teach the forehand topspin using the analogy of doing a ‘military salute’. This is a common coaching method that I have seen used by lots of Chinese table tennis coaches. The kids often pick this up quite quickly and after a bit of practice are playing a forehand topspin with something like a ‘salute’ action. The adults tend to find it more difficult – perhaps because their head is so much higher than the height of the ball.
The main point I’m making here is that despite identical coaching instructions, my 4-foot beginner and my 6-foot beginner often end up playing two very different strokes!
Watch a 6-Year-Old Do It
The first thing you’ll notice is that the boy’s elbow is naturally below the height of the incoming ball. Therefore, in order to use any sort of swing in his stroke, he is required to swing forwards and up (otherwise his bat would simply smash into the table and the ball would bounce over his hand).
In other words, his 4-foot stature practically forces him to play with a “good” salute technique, brushing the ball forwards and up, keeping his arm bent at the elbow, and his bat high and out in front of him.
Compare that to the image I posted in last week’s blog post of the two guys playing ping pong in their office and you notice that their elbows are naturally quite a bit above the height of the ball. As such, they spend quite a lot of time with their bat significantly below their elbow (like the guy on the left, below).
So, the argument I’m putting forward is that kids (especially those aged 6-10) have a natural advantage when learning to play table tennis. Their height (or lack of it) means they are forced to use “correct” technique, while adults can get away with simply patting the ball over the net – a luxury not afforded to our 6-year-old.
Learning to play on your knees
There are two ways we can potentially replicate that situation for adult beginners. The first would be to create a really tall table tennis table (it would need to have a height of about 4 foot or 122 cm). The second is to play table tennis on your knees.
Perhaps at some point, I’ll have a go at putting a table tennis table on top of some of those step platforms you find at the gym and giving that a try. That’s not the easiest thing to do, though. Playing on your knees, however, is much more achievable…
On my knees, I’m about 130cm tall. Harrie is a little shorter than me, so I reckon he is closer to 4-foot. We played table tennis on our knees for about 5 minutes before we started our coaching session yesterday afternoon. This video shows the last two minutes – after a few minutes of one and two shot rallies and a lot of top edges!
As you can imagine, it took us a while to adjust to the change in height. At first, we missed a lot of shots. Then we kept putting everything into the net. You see, when your arm and bat begin below the height of the ball you really need to brush it up in order to get it over the net. After a few minutes, we figured that out and had both changed our technique, slightly.
The backhand topspin
The backhand rallies we were having reminded me a lot of the backhand-to-backhand rallies you see at U11 level. Our elbows were so low that it wasn’t possible to play a wristy backhand with lots of forearm – or anything even remotely resembling a backhand banana flick, over the table. Instead, we were forced to push through and up, with a slightly closed bat angle, keeping our elbow much closer to our body.
The forehand topspin
The forehand felt great! Down at that level, I really got an understanding of how the “military salute” action makes perfect sense – if you’re 4-foot tall. Following through towards my head was the natural thing to do. My bat wanted to finish up above my eyes.
What happened when we stood back up?
Once we stopped recording, we both got up and began our usual practice session – starting with the obligatory knock up. It felt really weird for about 60 seconds. We were both bottom-edging everything and couldn’t string a rally together. But then, after our brains had figured out that we were now quite a bit taller, we both felt amazing.
Practically at the same time, we started saying, “I feel great”. Our technique felt really natural and solid. I felt like I was a lot lower and more balanced/stable than normal.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a quote from Harrie Austin-Jones himself…
When Ben first said this to me on Wednesday I wanted to laugh at him. When I was on the ground I got the idea that, yes, I could do high forehands like a child but my knees hurt and I couldn’t move at all. However, when I stood up again I felt like a different player. I was lower. I was striking the ball better. And I was more stable than I had ever been before. I cannot emphasise enough how much those five minutes have changed my game. Seriously, you have to try it!
I will probably try it again with Harrie next week. Perhaps I’ll feed multiball to him instead, to make sure that he at least gets a decent ball to hit every time. But I definitely think there is something in this. Again, not necessarily for expert players. But for those who are still developing their strokes, I think this is an interesting thing to try.
Why not have a go yourself and leave a comment letting me know how it went?