‘Service Detention’ and How to Improve Your Table Tennis Serve

Ma Long Table Tennis ServeSo you want to improve your table tennis serve… join the club. My service is probably one of the weakest areas of my game, which is stupid because it’s so important!

When you are serving in table tennis you have complete control of the ball. You can decide how the rally starts. Do you want to do a short serve with backspin and force someone to open up? Do you want to try and fast serve into your opponents weaker side and look to catch them out and finish off the point with a third ball winner? You have complete control over the power, spin and positioning of the ball and you should really be making the most of that advantage.

For every other shot in a table tennis game, to a varying degree, you will be reacting to your opponents decisions but right here, as you stand with the ball in your palm, it’s all you!

How to Improve Your Table Tennis Serve

This post isn’t going to be going into the technical details of how to get more spin on your serves or how to disguise them to greater effect, I’ll leave that for another post. In this post I’ll be looking more generally at some of the things you can do to improve the quality of your serves in table tennis. Here are some of my top tips…

  1. Practice, practice practice: As with learning any skill, practice is the key. I have spent over ten years playing table tennis but only occasionally have I spent any significant amount of time working specifically on improving my service game. Hence, my serves are pretty rubbish.
  2. Learn from others: Whether you’re an international player or a complete beginner, I’m sure you know somebody that has better serves than you or is better at a particular serve. Watch their action. You can learn a lot from just observing others performing a skill (this is something I’ve recently discovered and am keen to write a post about). Ask them for tips. Asking questions is a great way to learn and iron out any individual problems you may be having. Also make sure you find a way to use feedback in your service practice.
  3. Double up: Research has shown that we actually learn better (and by that I mean retain what we’ve learnt more successfully) if we alternate between two skills. If you would like to improve your reverse serve, for example, then mix it up with a serve you are more comfortable with, such as the sidespin pendulum. Forcing your brain to switch between the two will stop it from getting into a habit of movement and performing the serve on autopilot. This will help you retain more of what you’ve practiced later on.
  4. Use targets: If it’s accuracy you are going for, using targets is a good way of providing yourself with instant feedback. You could use a bat case, a bat, or a small square of paper. Try to hit your chosen target a certain number of times out of twenty serves. Then have another go and try to beat it. If you’re getting really accurate you can use a slightly squashed table tennis ball as a target. Believe me it’s a good feeling when your serve clips that ball and sends it skidding along the table!
  5. Save time: For most of us, time is short. Save time by investing in a box of practice balls. You can get a hundred or so for about £20-£30 and they’ll last ages. This way you can keep serving, over and over, getting the most out of the time that you have. To save your back, you might want to invest in a collection net as well, if your venue doesn’t already have one.
  6. Have an aim: I sometimes put kids on service practice in the group sessions I coach and I always try to bang home the point that they must have an aim for the five minutes or so they have on service. Too often I glance over and they’re serving a hundred balls a minute, with about four balls in their free hand and not really learning anything. Yes we want to get through as many serves as possible but it’s important to take your time, create ‘match-like’ conditions and focus on improve one or two aspects per session.
  7. Find a receiver: Every now and again it can be good to do your service practice against another player. You wont always be able to find someone but just having them there will probably increase your concentration and in turn, the quality of your serves. It’s good to get an idea of which serves opponents find difficult and which ones you may need to improve further. They’ll probably find it useful too. We all need to practice our receive as well as our service!
  8. Be deceptive: It can be easy to focus too much on the quality of the serve (power, spin and placement) and forget about trying to make it hard to ‘read’. Individual service practice is the time to try out different ways to confuse your opponents with wrist flicks and arm movements that suggest different spins. Remember an excellent serve that is really easy to read is often not as good as a lower quality serve that can be disguised and produced with variations of spin and placement.

So those are my top tips. I was going to think of ten but I decided to stop at eight. I’ve probably missed out something really important, so if you spot it, please leave a comment and let me know.

What is ‘Service Detention’?

If you read the title of this post you’re probably thinking, “What on earth is ‘Service Detention’? Ben’s written a whole post and hasn’t mentioned it once!” Well if you’ve never heard of service detention before you’re not alone… because I only came up with it a couple of days ago.

DetentionI coach table tennis at a school in London. Occasionally a child will be messing about or will have forgot a part of their kit and they will be given a PE detention. They are given a detention because their behaviour was not up to scratch and it is hoped that the detention will do something to improve this. The detention usually takes the form of 15 minutes at the end of the school day.

So what is ‘service detention’? Well my serves are not up to scratch, so I have decided to give myself ‘service detention’. I coach at the school everyday, from Monday to Friday, so for 15 minutes, after I have finished my coaching session, I am going to stay and practice my serves. I thought the name ‘service detention’ was kind of apt seeing as I would be staying late, at school, for 15 minutes, doing what is really quite a repetitive task!

I started today (Monday 8th October 2012) and spent 15 minutes working on my reverse serve (which is currently appalling!), interspersed with some sidespin ones and a few fast topspin serves, of course. What was even more funny was that there was a year 9 boy on an actual PE detention at the time, so he got the job of walking around with the net and picking up all of my stray table tennis balls. I guess that’s a further extension to my fifth point from earlier, ‘Save time’!

I will be on ‘service detention’ every single day, after I have finished coaching, until July 2013, the end of the school year. By then I will have spent more than 50 hours working on my table tennis serves and I hope to have made some dramatic improvements. If you ever happen to bump into me, please ask me how my ‘service detentions’ are going. That will stop me from giving up after a couple of weeks.

Well that’s about all. This was supposed to be a short one but it seems I’ve written a fair bit. Nevermind. I hope you’ve found something in that which you will be able to adapt and apply to your own practice.

Thank you so much for reading. I really appreciate it that you’ve taken a bit of time out of your day to see what I’ve got to say about the sport that I love. If you’re new to Expert Table Tennis then why not have a look at some of my most popular posts. You can find them in the sidebar on your right. I’d also love you to sign up to my mailing list. You can do that in the sidebar on your right too! I will be using that to deliver exclusive table tennis content, only available to those of you that sign up!

If you’d like to contact me, please leave a comment below or you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and over at Table Tennis Talk.

Start practicing your serves! :)