Yesterday I stumbled across a table tennis video on YouTube from PintoTM. If you haven’t already, I recommend subscribing to his channel as he regularly releases interesting table tennis videos.
This video was entitled, ‘5 Peculiarities to Become a Great TT Player’ and was a slight tongue-in-cheek look at some of the similarities between the top twenty male players in the world. I think some people slightly misunderstood the message of the video, as it received some bad ratings and negative comments, but I found it intriguing.
The video found five patterns in the world’s elite;
- Avoid penhold
- Be left-handed
- Attack to win
- Use Butterfly equipment
- Be Asian
The author of the video (is that the right term) made the point that the stats indicate that if you want to become a top-level table tennis player you should ideally use a shakehands grip, play left-handed, become an attacker, use Butterfly equipment and be Asian. After all, stats can’t lie! Or can they…
Watch the video
Here’s the video in question. Definitely worth a watch and don’t forget to bear in mind the lighthearted nature of it.
Break the mould
I found the five points made in this video very interesting but I saw them in a slightly different light.
Instead of focusing on the five peculiarities (or similarities) between the majority of the top players I began to look at the outliers, the minority for each group, those breaking the traditional table tennis “mould”. What I realised what quite encouraging.
A couple of the characteristics (being Asian and being left-handed) are unchangeable. I guess, you can make the point that Nadal was encouraged to start playing tennis with his left hand to give him an advantage but I still think for the majority of us we should be playing our sport with our dominant hand, and obviously you can’t become Asian if you’re not.
However, there were five non-Asian players in the top twenty and two in the top ten. So surely the only real lesson we can take from this is that it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, anyone can reach the top. Go back fifty years and the Chinese were nowhere to be seen. It’s not about where you’re from, it’s about what you do.
Similarly, while left-handed players are certainly over-represented in table tennis (I’ve written a post specifically about this phenomenon), right-handers are still the overwhelming majority with 13 in the top 20 and 7 in the top 10. It’s obviously not that important then!
Then moving onto equipment there is more encouragement on offer. It’s often banded around that Butterfly equipment (arguably the best but also the most expensive) is necessary to reach the top. The Tenergy rubbers in particular are used by a huge majority of the top English players, giving the impression that if you want to compete you need to fork out and start using the expensive stuff.
However, while the majority of top players are using Butterfly many are not. Most of the Chinese players use a hard sponge Chinese rubber such as DHS Hurricane on their forehand. Then you’ve got Ovtcharov who is supposedly using Donic rubbers (at least on one side of his bat). The point to be made isn’t that most of the top players use Tenergy/Butterfly. The point is that there are top players that don’t, and as long as this is the case we can categorically say that Tenergy is not required to become one of the best player in the world, let alone one of the best in your country or region.
Then it starts getting really interesting…
Shakehands vs Penhold
I’ve heard many coaches and players say that penhold is a dying breed. Many of the top young Chinese players now use the Western shakehands grip and the style is being taught less and less. Therefore, the fact from the video that 16 of world’s top 20 are using the shakehands grip isn’t unsurprising.
But hang on a minute…
That means that four of them are!
Look again and you’ll see that three of the top ten are penholders. In actual fact you could even argue that the two styles are evenly matched because the top four players in the world (Ma Long, Xu Xin, Wang Hao and Zhang Jike) contain two of each. These four players really stand out as the best players in the world at the moment and playing shakehands or penhold doesn’t seem to have any effect at all.
My conclusion from the data…
There are advantages and disadvantages to both grips but I don’t think we can say at all that one is better than the other for the modern player, this simply isn’t the case.
But I know one thing is for sure, penhold is being taught to players a lot less, and lets not forget why left-handers have this apparent advantage over right-handers… because there are less of them.
Perhaps we should be coaching penhold after all!
Attack vs Defence
Similarly, it’s often said that, for the modern game of table tennis, the traditional defender is dead. The game is too fast now to be able to focus on retrieving the ball and succeed, instead every player must attack or be attacked. I’ve said this, or something similar, a few times myself.
Now the stats show that there is only one defender in the world’s top 20, Joo Saehyuk. It does appear that in general the attack dominates the top ranking positions and therefore attacking is the way to go.
However, let’s not ignore Joo Saehyuk. He’s been a top player for many many years and he’s got there defending!
Can we say that defense is dead and all players need to become attackers? Not at all! The stats say the opposite. There’s nothing stopping a defender from reaching the top levels of international table tennis. If Joo Saehyuk can do it, why not you?
It’s easy to look around at the norm or the majority and decide in our heads that the best table tennis players are Butterfly sponsored, left-handed Asians that attack with a shakehands grip.
In can be tempting to then start forcing this mould on players; “You must be an attacker”, “You need to switch to shakehands” etc.
However, what I’ve taken from this is that perhaps we are better off breaking the mould and going down the road less traveled.
Can you become a top player using the penhold grip? Absolutely! Just ask Xu Xin or Wang Hao.
Can you become a top player using a defensive game? Absolutely! Just ask Joo Saehyuk.
Why do left-handers have this apparent advantage? Because they are a rarity! Let’s not forget this. If we spend all our time trying to play exactly like everyone else we lose that advantage, the surprise factor, the awkwardness and make things easy for our opponent. After all they’ve played hundreds of shakehands attackers before.
Instead of looking at becoming like everyone else perhaps we should focus on building up strengths that make us stand out and incorporating these into our strategy for reaching the top.