I started day one of Werner Schlager Week yesterday with nine table tennis tips from Werner focusing on the area of service and service return. Today, our attention switches to stroke development.
We’re going to go through all of the major strokes, including; the push, the drive, the smash, the topspin, the flick/flip, the block, the backspin defence, and the balloon defence. I’m sure that, regardless of your current level, you’ll find some useful tips in here.
These quotes are taken from Werner Schlager’s fantastic book Table Tennis: Tips from a World Champion. It’s a great read that you can buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. I highly recommend it. In my opinion, it should be compulsory reading for all aspiring table tennis players!
For more table tennis tips please check out my page, 1001 Table Tennis Tips. Now let’s get into the good stuff!
The push is underestimated in its effect.
I really like this quote from Werner as the push is definitely one of those strokes that is hardly ever spoken about but is so important in matches. The majority of points involve at least one push and yet how little we practice it.
A push isn’t just a passive stroke either. You can be very aggressive with your pushes, especially with a dig that you get deep and well placed into your opponents body.
It is often neglected in training because the push is not as attractive as the topspin. But we learn in the book that Werner Schlager did a lot of pushing in training as a young player. It’s certainly not something to skip over if you want to become a top player!
The forehand push is more difficult because in a certain area in front of the body, the shoulder joint is not made for a push.
As a table tennis coach, I can testify to the fact that lots of players find it difficult to master the correct technique for the forehand push. It is quite awkward anatomically so lots of beginners end up forehand pushing across their body instead of away from their body.
I’ve found there are a couple of options. Firstly, getting your elbow further forward and out in front of your body makes it much easier to use the textbook forehand push technique. Keeping your elbow back or tucked into your side is what leads to swiping across your body.
Secondly, you’ll notice that lots of top players actually push with more of a jab motion. Instead of using their forearm and wrist to slice under the ball with their elbow as the pivot (as you would with a pendulum backspin serve) they simply extend their arm underneath and through the ball. In fact, once you’ve done plenty of practice, most of your forehand and backhand pushes will probably become a combination of both these techniques – depending on the position of the ball.
When pushing, you should try to take it as soon as possible after the bounce.
This is a very important tip for your pushing. You may not have noticed it but top players usually take the ball very early when they are pushing, especially if they are trying to touch the ball back short. It is much easier to control the ball (and keep it low) if you take it early.
The drive is quite unimportant in top-level table tennis but an important stroke for the beginner.
This is something that I have considered myself and spoken to a few different people about. If professional players virtually never play a drive in competition, because they always choose to loop instead, then why are we still teaching it to kids and beginners? Perhaps we would be better off just teaching them to loop right from the start.
Werner doesn’t go into much detail here but he does confirm my belief that it is still important to teach the forehand and backhand drive first, before later building the forehand and backhand loop (and other strokes) on top of it.
He recalls that he moved on to the forehand topspin very soon, leaving the drive behind, but he developed his backhand loop later. It is okay to drive on the backhand at first and be a bit flatter.
Mainly only short pimple players drive the ball in matches.
Some styles of player still use the drive in competition, for example, those playing with short pimples (like He Zhiwen). It is easier to drive with short pimples because the rubber makes it easier to hit through the spin on the ball.
This can be quite tricky to deal with. I’ve encountered the short pimple drive/flat hit quite a lot having played with Ping and Tin-Tin Ho in the past. It is a very effective shot and requires you to spin the ball up a lot more than you are used to in an attacking rally. If you play your standard counter-topspin you can end up putting their flat ball into the net.
It is a useful ritual to do forehand and backhand drives when you first get onto the table. Before you start looping.
Watch any professional players knocking up and you’ll notice that they almost always start by hitting drive to drive. Werner Schlager doesn’t actively practice his drive anymore, but he does use it for warming up.
The drive is great for helping you to get your eye in and loosen up. You can also use it as a movement exercise to get your legs working before starting your match or training session.
50x forehand drive is good consistency.
Werner Schlager likes counting drive consistency when coaching beginners. For example, making 50 drives without a mistake is a sign that you are beginning to master the stroke and develop solid control over the ball.
This is something that I did a lot as a kid. At my club, we would line up waiting for our chance to go onto a table with a controller. Once there, we would get to hit 30 balls before our turn was up. The target was always to make your 30 shots in one continuous rally without a mistake.
First, master the backhand drive without wrist. Then start adding wrist. It takes time to master the correct wrist action.
The basic backhand drive can be played with a fixed wrist. It’s quite a clunky shot but it’s a good start. Loosening up the wrist will give you much greater control and feeling over the ball but it also requires much finer motor skills. There’s no shame in keeping the wrist locked when you are first learning the stroke.
I decide to smash if the ball is short and/or high enough.
In some ways, the loop has taken over the smash. However, a smash is still useful if the ball is very high, or very short (close to the net) as this is awkward to loop. A “smash spin” or “loop kill” is a combination of a smash and a loop. It has speed and rotation.
Werner Schlager uses the smash in situations where he doesn’t have much time. It is an emergency stroke.
The more you use the wrist, the more difficult consistency becomes.
As we learnt above, this is true for all strokes in table tennis. A short ball to the forehand is smashed with more wrist as it is more difficult to swing the whole arm.
The earlier I take the ball, to smash, the more effective it is but the risk is higher.
You have two/three options when smashing; you can take the ball on the rise, at the peak of the bounce, or on the way down. If you are smashing a really high lob it may not be possible to take the ball at the peak of the bounce, as this could be out of reach.
Taking the ball earlier (ie. before the peak of the bounce) gives your opponent significantly less time to react. However, it also gives you much less time to get yourself in a good position to smash. It’s a classic trade-off between aggression and consistency.
Interestingly, when asked the question, “Which technical-tactical mistakes are often seen with a smash?”, Werner answered… “Impatience”.
The more topspin I put on the ball, the less I need to consider the existing rotation of the coming ball. The more spin I put on the ball, the less I need to consider the existing rotation.
You may remember that I used this in my recent blog post about How to Return Spin Serves. It is probably my favourite Werner Schlager quote!
What he’s saying is that using lots of spin on your own strokes can help to weaken the effect of the spin that was put on the ball by your opponent. If you play a high-quality shot, with plenty of spin, you don’t have to worry as much about which spin was on the ball. You can counter that spin with your own spin.
Personally, I don’t see a clear difference between the topspin against topspin or backspin.
Some coaches teach that there are two types of loop. The loop against topspin (where you hit more through the ball, or over the ball) and the loop against backspin (where you have to spin up the back of the ball). My coach when I was a junior used the talk about brushing the ball at “3 o’clock” when looping backspin – basically, brushing up vertically.
This kind of thinking is probably useful when working with relatively new players – as their biggest problem is usually looping backspin balls into the net. However, if you watch the top Chinese you’ll notice that even when looping backspin they appear to make contact close to the top of the ball. Professional players are able to do this because of the quality of their strokes.
So, professionals probably don’t have to worry too much about whether the ball has topspin or backspin because their loops are so perfect and spinny. This goes back to the point above about heavy spin strokes weakening the spin already on the ball.
The more backspin a coming ball has, the more physically exhausting it is to loop the ball over the net.
Here’s one potential difference, though. Looping a backspin ball is much harder work than looping a topspin one. Looping a backspin ball involves getting down much lower and using the legs and your whole body to transform the backspin into topspin with your loop.
You need fast legs for a forehand topspin. If I miss a forehand topspin, my legs were often too slow. Footwork is everything.
The forehand topspin is a whole body stroke. Therefore, it begins with getting your feet in the correct place. This is something that is ignored by the majority of recreational players.
Chances are that when you miss a forehand topspin it isn’t the fault of your arm. Instead, it was your poor footwork that was forcing your arm to do something odd in order to try and loop the ball. The top players have such good footwork that the contact point of every loop is virtually the same in relation to their body. However, recreational players will loop some ball with their arm stretched out and others on their right hip.
From the book, I learnt that Werner Schlager likes to play his forehand topspin with a nearly outstretched arm (like the Chinese), instead of a bent arm (like Timo Boll and many other German players). This means that at the end of the backswing, his playing arm is almost fully stretched.
I usually opt for the forehand topspin instead of the backhand topspin against defensive players.
Looping many balls against a chopper, without making a mistake, can be really difficult. In these situations, Werner chooses to rely on his forehand topspin. When looping against a chopper you generally have plenty of time and can, therefore, cover the whole table with your forehand loop. Unless your backhand loop is particularly strong, most players use this tactic.
At the lower level, you can get away with not being able to flip.
This is another tip aimed at beginners and improvers. I know that sometimes it can feel like there is an endless list of shots you need to learn if you are to have any hope of winning matches. However, this isn’t true.
Most beginners can get away with not being able to flick a short ball. You should be able to push most balls and you can nudge/prod at anything that looks like a push isn’t going to work. It’s not perfect, but it will do for a little while.
The smash flip is very difficult because the more spin you put on a ball, the more control you have over it.
I briefly referred to the “smash flip” in my recent post How to Return Spin Serves. Basically, there are two ways to flick a ball. One involves using lots of spin and brushing the ball with your wrist. This shot suits itself more to the name “flick”.
The other technique involves quickly rotating your forearm and wrist over the backspin ball, starting underneath it. This creates a flatter, faster shot that is more suited to the name “flip”. This shot is much riskier as you have to get everything just right otherwise the spin on the ball will take effect and cause you to miss.
A good drill is to get your partner to return your short serve either short to your forehand or long to your backhand, or vice versa. Then look to flick the short ones.
I really like this drill and we used to do it a lot when I was living and training at Grantham Table Tennis Academy. It is super match-specific and also really tough because of the huge difference between the short or long return. Trying to flick every short ball means you can approach the drill with attacking 100% in your mind.
A flip will always be looped so you need to be careful doing soft flips.
This is actually one advantage of flicking. After performing a flick you know your opponent is going to play a loop, so you can get ready to counter-loop yourself.
The only thing to be careful of is doing a weak flick that sets your opponent up for a smash or a loop-kill. If that happens you might not be able to return their shot.
When blocking you want to take the ball early, before the peak of the bounce.
I remember learning this tip myself many years ago and it immediately improved my blocking ability. It was something that I hadn’t really considered but once I started aiming to block the ball as early as physically possible I found that it was both easier to block big loops and also much trickier for my opponent – because they had considerably less time.
I hardly block on the forehand because I try to counter topspin but on the backhand, the block is very important.
Watch any match between top table tennis players and you’ll notice how few forehand blocks are used. If the ball comes to their forehand they always try to do something with it. “Send it back with interest”, is what Alex Perry used to say to us – meaning, give it a little bit of extra spin/speed, at least.
I use the block often against weaker players to take it easy. That way you can win a match without a lot of physical effort.
The block can be very effective against a significantly weaker opponent. Blocking the ball means that you are very unlikely to make unforced errors and you can use their pace to move the ball around the table and wait for an error.
You always need to be careful when playing passive in matches that you aren’t about to get caught out by your opponent starting to play really great table tennis when you haven’t really warmed up your loops. However, the general rule is to play a more consistent game against weaker players and step it up a gear when faced with tougher opposition.
Backspin Defence (Chop)
I use the backspin defence in practice every now and again for fun, and because it helps to develop more feeling with my equipment.
At multiple points during the book, Werner makes the point about getting used to your bat and developing a relationship and feeling with it. This is very important for table tennis players. Changing your equipment regularly is not going to help you with this!
Learning how to chop – even if you doubt you will ever do it in a match – is very useful for learning “feeling” and how to control the spin on the ball. This is something that we discovered during The Expert in a Year Challenge. Sam’s ability to read and create spin improved greatly once he started chopping in practice for fun.
Werner also mentions that he wouldn’t encourage switching to a more defensive bat when doing this kind of thing in practice because that would be counter-productive.
Balloon Defence (Lob)
Balloon defence practice is good for kids because it is fun and also develops coordination, timing, control, and space awareness.
Basically, lobbing is a win-win. Everyone knows that lobbing and smashing are a lot of fun but lots of players and coaches class it simply as “messing around” and discourage it in the practice hall. Werner turns that idea on its head and instead suggests that it could be a very beneficial part of your training.
A good lob has lots of topspin and is as deep as possible.
This is really important. I like to think that I’m a fairly good lobber and the reason is that most of the time I am able to find the last six inches of the table. That makes it much more difficult for my opponent to smash and massively increases the chance of them making an error.
The biggest problem I see with players lobbing is that the ball isn’t deep enough. That allows the other player to step in and smash the ball down vertically over the lobbers head, or wide into another court.
Adding topspin to your lob is a good idea as well as this will get the ball to kick towards your opponent, pushing them even further back from the table.
The Chinese rarely play balloon balls. They are better at not getting pushed back.
Let’s face it, the Chinese are better at everything! But here Werner focuses on the fact that you very rarely see Ma Long or Fan Zhendong lobbing. Why? Because they are much better at staying up to the table, with their weight forward, and being aggressive.
At the pro level, the lob is only used as an emergency stroke because everyone is a good smasher. Therefore, it makes no sense to deliberately step back and start lobbing. We love watching long rallies between a smasher and a lobber, but 90% of the time it’s the smasher that wins in the end.
However, at lower levels, you will come across players that simply can’t smash. I don’t know what it is, but some players really can’t do it. Perhaps they just haven’t practised it enough. In these situations, it can be a tactical decision to drop back from the table – assuming you’ve got a decent lob.
Buy the book
That’s all for today but I’ll be back tomorrow with some of my favourite Werner Schlager tips on the topics of technique and tactics.
There are hundreds of other brilliant tips in the book, these are just a few that particularly stood out to me. I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy!
Table Tennis: Tips from a World Champion is available in paperback and for Kindle from Amazon. Please use the links below to buy…
- Amazon.com = $13.25 (Kindle) or $15.38 (Paperback)
- Amazon.co.uk = £9.99 (Kindle) or £12.95 (Paperback)
To check out all of my favourite table tennis books please read my popular blog post, The Best Table Tennis Books.
And if you are looking for some more table tennis tips from professional players and coaches please check out my page, 1001 Table Tennis Tips.