What Are Your Pushing Leaks? (And How to Fix Them)

Liam Pitchford Pushing

What is the most important stroke in table tennis? The serve? The loop? The topspin? The block? In today’s post I’m going to be putting forward the humble push as potentially the most important of them all!

“The push!?”, you say. “The push!?”

“Isn’t that the stroke of choice for beginners and girls?”

While it is true that beginners do seem to use the push as their ‘default stroke’, and girls do appear to prefer a push-to-push rally much more than us guys, the simple push is not a stroke to be ignored. It may not be very flashy. It may not get the crowds on their feet. But it can certainly win you points and matches if used effectively.

Don’t believe me? Here’s Liam Pitchford’s top tip for aspiring table tennis players from our table tennis tips page…

“Don’t focus all your energy on winning the big rallies. It’s the small points that win you matches and tournaments, things like; serve, receive and short play.”

Liam clearly understands the importance of pushing well and picking up easy points with the quality of your short play. I know it feels fantastic to play an epic loop-to-loop rally and hit your eighth or ninth topspin cross-court for a winner; but you still only get one point for that. Push the next serve into the net and the score is 1-1. There are no bonus points for ‘flair’ in this game!

I’ve seen this a lot recently in Sam’s matches. His pushing isn’t bad but it is a long way from perfect. In a typical game he is probably going to lose a couple of points (at least) from either pushing into the net, pushing off the end of the table, or pushing the ball too high so that his opponent gets a free smash. Those couple of points are really crucial and we have been working on his pushing this week to try and cut those little errors out.

What are your pushing ‘leaks’?

In poker they talk about your game having ‘leaks’. In poker a ‘leak’ is…

“An element of poor play or bad strategy that consistently reduces a player’s winnings or increases the player’s loses.”

To put it simply, a leak is anything that you do repeatedly when you play that makes you less likely to win.

The same principle can be applied to your table tennis and is easy to spot in your pushing. What is it that you do repeatedly when pushing that costs you points in matches? The first step to improving is identifying your weaknesses, your faults, your ‘leaks’. Once you’ve done that then you can think about how to fix them.

Here are four common pushing leaks;

1. Pushing into the net

There are a number of reasons why you may push a ball into the net. However, the main reason is that you underestimated the amount of spin on the ball. You didn’t get underneath the ball enough. If your opponents put lots of backspin on the ball, either when serving or with a shot, you need to really open up the face of your racket and get under it.

The heavy backspin makes the ball want to go straight down when it comes into contact with something. Come at the ball with a flat bat (neither open or closed) and the ball is going to make contact with your bat and then travel vertically down. Come at the ball with your bat at a 45 degree angle and the ball is going to shoot off at a 45 degree angle, probably still going down into the net unless it was quite a high ball. To stop this from happening you need to open your bat angle until it’s almost completely flat. Push the bottom of the ball. If you think of the ball as a clock you would be making contact at 6 o’clock (or perhaps something like 5:30).

Sam does sometimes push into the net but a better example of this can be seen in the first game of Sam’s recent match against Mathew Pearce at the Bristol GP. Sam has a heavy backhand backspin serve that he likes to use a lot. In the first game Mathew kept pushing it into the net. He was coming at the ball with his bat at roughly a 45 degree angle but that wasn’t enough for Sam’s heavy backspin. As a result he pushed Sam’s served into the net three or four times in that first end. After talking to his coach at the end of the first game Mathew came back to the table and never pushed that serve into the net again. His coach had told him to get underneath it more. He didn’t need to do anything fancy, he was still just pushing Sam’s serve back, but by opening up his bat angle he fixed a pushing leak that had cost him a lot of points in the first game.

If you find you are pushing a lot of balls in the net it is probably a technical error on your part more than anything else. Work on your push technique and practice against people who are able to generate lots of backspin.

2. Pushing off the end

Pushing balls long, off the end of the table, is probably down to a lack of control. If you struggle to control heavy spin then a strong backspin push can shoot off your bat and end up going long. Sam used to do this a lot a couple of months ago but he is doing it less now.

Another reason could be that you are not quite getting your timing right. This is difficult to explain in a blog post but sometimes you will be receiving a push that you need to take almost off the bounce. This probably because of the depth of the push. If you opponent pushes a ball very deep to you, and you try to take your push late, there is a good chance you wont be taking the ball in front of your body. It’ll already be in line with your body when you make contact, or perhaps even slightly behind your body. These kinds of pushes often go long, in my experience. It’s a typical mistake made by beginners. If some plays a deep push to you and you are standing close to the table and want to push it back you need to take it off the bounce. This is easy for an experienced player but more difficult if it takes you a little bit of time to work out how deep the push will be.

Finally, many beginners that have learnt to push properly, by brushing underneath the ball instead of just tapping under it, then struggle when they come up against a ‘tapper’. If your opponent is giving you very poor floaty pushes you need to push more down the back of the ball. Do you normal spinny push underneath the ball and it will probably go high (I’m going to cover this in a bit) and will often also go long.

If you find you are pushing lots of balls off the end of the table you may just need lots more practice pushing. Pushing only games will help you out a lot!

3. Pushing off the side

Pushing off the side is more of a niche problem that can be caused by a couple of things. It may be that your opponent is adding sidespin to the ball and you are not adjusting for it. This is often the case if you are pushing serves off the side but good players are also able to add sidespin to their pushes to make things more difficult. The only other reason is that you are aiming your push off the side of the table. This might sound stupid but if you are off balance or out of position you may think you are aiming at the table whereas in fact your bat is facing off the side of the table.

Sidespin-backspin serves are very common at all levels of table tennis. When pushing these back you need to make sure you are aware of the sidespin on the ball so that you can take it into account when you decide your placement. The sidespin added to the ball is going to drag the ball to one side. If you aim to hit the centre line of the table it may land 6 inches to the right or left (depending on which type of sidespin was used), maybe more if there is lots of spin. At a basic level aiming for the middle of the table is a safe tactic if you are confused by sidespin but after a while you will just have to learn how to adjust for the spin so that you can still place the ball anywhere on the table.

If you feel you are missing off the side because you are out of position then it is time to work on your footwork, probably. The faster you can move around the table the less likely you’ll be missing shots in this way. If you have a weak forehand push and are trying to play mostly backhand pushes this can be a common problem. All that moving around means that eventually you will probably get thrown off balance and end up playing a bit of a wild push that could go anywhere. Perhaps improving your forehand push is the answer.

If you find you are pushing lots of balls off the side of the table you need to think carefully about why that is. Consult a recent video of yourself if you have one.

4. Pushing too high

The final common leak is pushing too high. It isn’t as simple to diagnose as the others as it does immediately lose you the point. Instead, it gives your opponent a chance to take the point, if they are good enough. This means that often beginners get used to pushing too high as they aren’t punished for it. It’s only when they move up a level and start playing better players that they realise they are not pushing low enough to the net.

I think this is something that Sam has realised is a leak in his game recently. His pushes will often go high but up until recently he has either been playing against me (and I haven’t been smashing these past him as my focus has been on whatever he is doing and not on what I should be doing in that situation) or a local club player (who perhaps pushes that high push back or plays a drive/topspin which gives them the advantage but doesn’t win the point there and then).

At Bristol Sam played plenty of players who were good enough to quickly step around and kill any push that was a little too high. The younger players were particularly good at this. This meant that pushing high was about as bad as making an unforced error, because they very seldom missed their smashes!

Pushing too high is almost always a ‘feeling’ issue. I don’t really like that word as it is so hard to define but it’s difficult to call it anything else. You see, you could say, “well I pushed that high because it had less backspin on it” or “they had a funny rubber that meant the ball was very floaty” but the problem is that the spin on the ball isn’t really the problem. A good player can push any ball low because they have the ‘feeling’ to subconsciously adjust their push and still brush the ball. The only way to get this is with lots of practice pushing different kinds of balls. It’s also important to relax your wrist, arm and body. When Sam is tense his pushes pop up high and get smashed past him. Good players don’t make stiff pushes, they are smooth and relaxed.

If you find you are pushing lots of balls high it’s time to work on your ‘feeling’ and get used to being relaxed when you push so that you can make all those tiny adjusts needed to keep the ball low.

So those are the things you should be looking out for. If you have any video of a recent match you played why don’t you watch it back and note down any pushing errors you make. Chances are they will fall into one of those four categories. Which one are you most susceptible too? Some people put lots of pushes in the net (and fixing that should be their number one priority), while others (like Sam) probably struggle most with pushing too high and giving their opponent an easy ball to kill.

How to fix them… pushing-only games

One exercise you can use to improve your pushing, and fix your leaks, is the pushing-only game. Some of you have probably done these before but I’m sure many of you haven’t. They are a brilliant way to improve your pushing and are also quite fun.

So, what are pushing-only games?

Pushing-only games are a way to overload and overlearn the pushing part of your game. Instead of only playing one or two pushes per point, and thinking of them as a way to set up your attacking shots, the push becomes the focus of the game. It is the only weapon at your disposal so you will need to use it to start the point, set up your winning stroke, and win the point with.

Don’t think of pushing only games as simply a test of concentration and consistency. You shouldn’t just be pushing and hoping your opponent makes a mistake before you do. Instead, actively use the push to create opportunities. Vary your pushes and look for ways to be aggressive with your pushing. Do this for a few games, against a range of different players, and you’ll learn that the push can be just as aggressive, and just as effective, as any of your strokes.

Here is a video of me and Sam playing a pushing-only game last week in the kitchen. I am playing left-handed and my forehand push is a bit iffy so as a result I am trying to play as many backhand pushes as possible. A lot of players struggle with their forehand push so that is something to look out for, and try to exploit, when pushing.

Playing these pushing only games is going to…

  • Help you quickly decide whether to play a forehand or backhand push
  • Improve your footwork, especially moving in and out
  • Teach the importance of having a lose wrist and using your wrist in your pushes
  • Show you the importance of variation, in placement, length, amount of spin, height
  • Give you a chance to work on deception when pushing
  • Get you used to pushing without making mistakes

Just this week I’ve seen a big improvement in Sam’s pushing. He is now much better at digging (he really struggled to dig anything last weekend at Bristol) and he has learn to play a sort of drop-shot push (when he first started trying this during our games he put about ten of them in the net, in a row). I can tell that he is much more comfortable with his pushes and if we continue to play these games a few times a week I’m sure he’ll be an excellent pusher by the end of the year.

Learning to push can be so boring. I remember reading the section in Alex Polyakov’s book Breaking 2000 where he talks about the week he spent pushing. He hated it. He loved to loop the ball and doing little pushes all day almost sent him crazy.

It’s easy to switch off when you are pushing. This is especially easy when it is the other persons drill and you just need to push to a certain place as part of their exercise. Doing these pushing only games, and keeping the score, really helps to keep you engaged. It stops you from just pushing on autopilot. When we practice on autopilot it isn’t deliberate practice and we aren’t really getting any improvement from it. It feels comfortable but it isn’t very valuable. A pushing only game gives the practice the purpose, and purposeful practice is what it is all about if you want to improve a skill.

Have a go yourself

I encourage everyone reading this (yes that means you too) to have a go at playing a pushing only game the next time you play table tennis. You may think your pushes are pretty good already. If that’s the case you’ll find out in a pushing game. You may know you need to work on them and this could be the solution to your problems.

Don’t spend too much time doing it. It’s important that you don’t develop the bad habit of pushing lots of long balls. In a match it is good to have an attitude where you always first try to attack and resort to a push if that is not possible. But playing a pushing game, or two, every time you practice is definitely a good idea.

Perhaps you can add it to the end of your standard knock up. Instead of just doing forehands and backhands, why not finish with a pushing game to get those shots sharp and warmed up too.

And let me know how you get on. Leave a comment below or drop me an line. It’s great hearing how everyone is doing with their practice.