Rhythm and timing might sound like something out of a dance class but, in fact, they are hugely underrated table tennis skills. The ball bouncing on the table and hitting the players’ bats creates a beat and a pattern. If you can get your mind and your body in tune with that beat you will immediately start playing much better table tennis.
For the next few weeks, I am going to be writing a mini-series of blog posts examining a handful of these “underrated table tennis skills”. I hope that they help you to broaden your knowledge and understanding of the game and, in turn, improve your level.
Is rhythm innate?
Do you have good rhythm? I like to think I do. I did a Google search and managed to find an online rhythm test. I have no idea how good it actually is for testing your rhythm, but I tried it out anyway. If you would like to have a go the link is below. It only took about 5 minutes to complete.
I used only one replay (on the first sound because I wasn’t really sure what was going on) and then did the rest of the test on just one listen per sound. It was pretty tough and on a few occasions I just had to guess, but I finished with a score of 80%, which is apparently “outstanding performance”. It would be interesting to see what results other people get (if you have a go please leave a comment at the bottom of this article with your score).
It does seem that some people just naturally have better rhythm than others. If that’s you; great! But what if you know that rhythm isn’t one of your strong points? Can you improve your rhythm?
Here’s an interesting thought from music blogger Laurie Riley…
“Usually when someone says they’re rhythmically challenged, it really means they’re beat-challenged – they cannot follow the pulse of the music. But since beat, rhythm and tempo are interconnected, trouble with one can sometimes lead to trouble with the others. Since “sense of rhythm” is the phrase that is most commonly used even though it really usually means “sense of beat”, for this article I’ll use the common phrase.”
So, from the sounds of it, it’s all about your ability to stay “on beat”. There are loads of suggestions for how to improve your “sense of rhythm” in a musical sense, and Laurie recommends trying to clap along to different songs. I’m sure this might help in a general sense, but I reckon that something more table tennis specific would be a better use of time. That got me thinking…
The Ping Pong Song
I remembered seeing the following video on Facebook a couple of years ago. It is of a concert pianist called Joja Wendt playing a song he called “The Ping Pong Song”. For the song, he gets a couple of table tennis players to hit the ball to each other on top of the grand piano. Their rhythm and timing are so perfect that he is able to use the rally as a metronome (fortunately they don’t make any mistakes either, that would have been embarrassing).
If you watch the way the players move and bob to the beat it is almost as if they are dancing. Actually, I wonder if there is a link between how good someone is at dancing and how good they are at table tennis?
Anyway, the point to take away from that is that there is a clear rhythm or beat to table tennis and you need to be able to get in sync with it. I remember watching a video of Darius Knight talking about “the beat” of table tennis too, but I can’t find it now.
Metronome Shadow Play
I wish I could claim that this was my own great idea but, in fact, I’ve stolen it from Steve Brunskill, head coach at Swerve TTC in Middlesbrough.
I went up to Swerve a few times during 2014 with Sam as part of The Expert in a Year Challenge and Steve would always have some great new coaching ideas for me to check out. One of them was playing a metronome on a loud speaker in the hall and then getting all the players to do shadow play drills in time with the metronome. Here’s an example of what I mean.
I remember looking over at Sam, at Swerve, and seeing that he was struggling and was often not playing in time with the beat. Naturally, Sam wasn’t great at rhythm and timing (he struggled with skipping too which I reckon is closely linked) but as the year progressed, and he did more rhythmic drills, he made huge strides forwards.
I believe that shadow play is brilliant and I would encourage everyone to give it a go. Adding a metronome to your shadow play is even better as the beat of the metronome becomes the ball. This will help you with your rhythm and will also keep your effort level stable because you won’t be able to slow down towards the end of a drill.
I really like the metronome at www.metronomeonline.com because you can use it in your phone’s web browser (I hate having loads of random apps) and it is super easy to use.
I had it set at 72 bpm (beats per minute) in the video above. I wouldn’t recommend going any slower than 60 bpm otherwise I think it become unrealistically slow and you will have too long of a pause in between strokes. Have a play around with different tempos though and see what works for you.
Introducing Andy Couchman
A couple of months ago Andy Couchman contacted me regarding his own table tennis challenge. He wants to break into the top 600 ranked players in England after three years of training. I spoke about Andy Couchman with Sam during Episode 13 of The Expert Table Tennis Podcast and we both agreed that top 600 in 3 years is a very good and achievable target (unlike our Expert in a Year target of top 250 in one year).
Andy is also keeping a blog of his progress and uploading videos to YouTube. If you would like to check that out you can do so here…
I have started working with Andy and gave him a coaching session a couple of weeks ago. One of the things I picked up on was timing errors in his shots. It was this that got me thinking about rhythm and timing in the first place.
I asked Andy to have a go doing shadow play at home but to a metronome. He filmed it and uploaded it to YouTube. Have a watch…
What you’ll see is that his shot isn’t 100% in time with the beat. Sometimes it is, but then at other times he will get ahead of it or fall behind. I wasn’t surprised to see this at all. Andy is aware that he will need to spend a bit of time working on this until he is comfortable not just with the basic technique, but also with the timing and rhythm of the strokes.
Even more interesting was Andy’s score in the online rhythm test I mentioned earlier. He finished with 48% which put him in the “possible rhythm perception or memory deficit” category. The question is – can this be improved? If Andy is to make it into the top 600 players in England I reckon it will have to be!
The more I coach table tennis the more I am convinced that much of what we call “talent” can actually be broken down into fundamental skills – one of which is a good “natural” sense of rhythm. The players in the training group with good rhythm pick up the strokes and the timing of their shots much faster than those without.
Therefore, if you want to improve your table tennis you need to work on improving these seemingly unrelated and underrated fundamental skills too.
Research has shown that it is better to have a high IQ than a low IQ. People with a higher IQ are more likely to be successful, but only up to a point. Malcolm Gladwell marks this at 120 in his book outliers. The thinking is, once you get past that point it really doesn’t matter if your IQ is 130 or 150. It is down to a host of other factors to determine who will be the most successful. What is important is that you are scoring at least 120.
I would guess that your rhythm (or beat keeping) is similar. Of course, you would like it to be as good as possible but at some point you reach a threshold where further gains aren’t going to have any effect on your table tennis.
Where is that threshold? I’m not sure. But I don’t think you need to be scoring 100% on the impossibly hard online rhythm test. Instead, as long as you can do a range of different shadow play drills, to a metronome, and stay “on beat”, I reckon your rhythm is fine and nothing to worry about.
But… if you realise that you struggle to play your strokes in time with the metronome and find yourself getting too fast or too slow (a bit like Andy), then I think it would be a good idea to continue working on your rhythm. Practice your metronome table tennis training as much as possible until you feel yourself and the beat become one.