This is the third in a series of blog posts I’m calling “A Parent’s Guide to Table Tennis”. I believe this is a really important topic as parents have a big, and often undervalued, role to play in the development of their children’s sporting abilities.
The idea is to share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up over the years from speaking to the parents of competitive table tennis players. Many have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours supporting their children at the numerous training sessions and tournaments that occur every week. In fact, they are often as much immersed in the learning process as the players are!
I hope that this series will help to guide other parents as they nurture and assist their kids. You can find all the posts in this series in my Table Tennis Coaching Archive.
Table Tennis Equipment
The idea of this article is not to recommend any particular piece of equipment – you can find my table tennis equipment recommendations here – but rather to help you with some of the questions and decisions that you will need to make when equipping your child to play table tennis.
Unfortunately, you will quickly discover that there are very few dedicated table tennis shops, where you can physically browse for products. If you go to a general sports shop, they might have some very basic training balls and possibly a low-cost beginner bat. Anything else is generally not available on the high street. Some clubs carry a small selection of items for sale, but the majority of table tennis purchases are made remotely, either online or via the phone/catalogue.
However, if you do want to physically look at and purchase equipment as you would in an actual shop, then some of best places to go to are the larger tournaments where suppliers set up a trade stand. Generally, these trade stands will be aligned to favour one brand in particular, but they usually carry most blades and rubbers. They can offer advice on equipment and will also do useful things such as cutting and glueing the rubbers for you.
When it comes to the playing textiles needed for table tennis, the main thing to check is the colour of the shirt, as this is the only restriction within the standard rules of table tennis. The shirt colour should be different to the colour of the ball. With the ball colour usually being white, it means to avoid this for shirts and shorts. In fact, it is practically impossible to buy a branded table tennis shirt in white!
Any general sportswear shirts, shorts, or skirts should be fine for playing table tennis, though it can be nice to get some of the table tennis branded apparel. Often the club will have a specific match shirt that is needed for team events and they might have a deal on the price.
Like all clothing producers, the main brands bring out new shirts each year and will run them for a couple of years. It’s worth checking the clearance lines and promotions, as they often have some very good prices if you are lucky with the sizes. Each brand can have slightly different dimensions for the equivalent size, so if you are worried try and check with other players before ordering.
Another thing to check is the arm movement around the sleeve. This can bother some players if the sizing isn’t quite right.
Printing on shirts is quite common but be careful of the added costs this can bring. Sticking a name on the back of a shirt also means you can’t pass it onto someone else (like a younger sibling) when your child has grown out of it.
You can get table tennis shoes branded by the major table tennis suppliers, but again there are good alternatives from other companies. Try to look for the “court” type of shoes that offer good support and then ideally just keep them only for indoor use. There is nothing worse as a table tennis coach than to see a group of players bringing in a load of mud and dust from outside into the sports hall!
When your child is playing, you will find that each venue will have varying amounts of grip. They might have to play at a venue that has many different uses of the floor. For example, some dancing classes put chalk on the floor and this makes it very hard to grip. One trick is to keep the sole of the shoe slightly damp with a wet towel to stand on, as this can improve the grip on a very slippy floor.
The other extreme of friction is the Taraflex table tennis flooring which has an insane amount of grip. Playing on this for the first time can actually feel uncomfortable as your toes jam into the ends of your shoes. It is also extremely abrasive to the shoes, so the soles can wear out quickly.
For further information please have a read of my article, The Best Table Tennis Shoes.
If you are going to buy a table tennis table for your home, there are a few things to consider. Indoors or outdoors is the first main question.
Indoor tables are generally made from a wooden top whereas an outdoor table is usually fabricated with a type of melamine/resin surface and metal frame. Indoor tables require more care and attention for playing and storage conditions as the wooden surface can become damaged with high humidity and temperature variations. Putting a wooden table in a garage is certainly possible, but there is also the risk of some damage in the long term if adverse conditions are experienced.
Conversely, an outdoor table can be used in any situation but there is usually less choice, particularly at the higher quality end.
The thickness of the table establishes some aspect of quality because a thicker table gives a more consistent bounce. To that point, some tables are certified as suitable for competitive table tennis due to passing an ITTF quality and bounce test.
However, the thicker the table, the stronger the frame required to support it. This increases the overall weight of the table significantly. Therefore, if you are having to move the table around a lot, think about how and who will move it.
Some tables come with two pieces which fold up and down. There are also ones with undercarriages and wheels which can include an integrated net. These are the easiest to move around but take up a bit more space when folded up.
Due to the variety of types and costs, it is certainly worth having a look at some online reviews, catalogues and also speaking to suppliers. You should also check out my popular article, The Best Table Tennis Tables.
Blades and Rubbers
As I said at the start, I am not recommending a particular piece of equipment – though I am assuming we have now gone beyond the very cheap bat you buy from a sports shop. What we are discussing here is the setup of separate blades and rubbers.
A couple of things to consider first…
- Spending more money doesn’t necessarily mean the equipment is more suitable for a developing player.
- Choosing a setup is often about a compromise – you generally can’t have everything. A faster setup will have more power but will be much harder to control. So, will you lose more points than you win?
- Changing the setup up frequently disturbs the learning process.
Just to give you some perspective on those first few comments; you can find some very good adult players on the using the same relatively low cost (under £40) wooden blade that they started with as a cadet player. They have gone right through their junior years and into seniors with the same blade!
Perhaps one of the reasons for them maintaining a blade is that they were playing so much there wasn’t enough downtime to change and the adjustment process would have lost them time. There is also always a risk that a new setup is actually going to be worse.
It can take even a national standard player over 6 months to fully adapt to a new blade and rubber setup. Changing blades and rubbers is often seen as a quick fix solution but it will not transform a losing player into a winning player. The best thing to do is focus on a balanced setup that helps the child learn the strokes.
How to choose given the almost infinite combinations of blades and rubbers?
If your child is going to a club that has some coaching, then it is a very good idea to talk to the coach about the blades and rubbers they are using. The coaches will get asked about this a lot and will be used to assessing playing level with respect to equipment choice. It is much harder to describe down the phone to a supplier about playing level so if you want to buy from a remote seller, make sure you note down all of the information that you need to purchase beforehand.
For a blade, you will need to know the type of blade and also specify a handle shape. Handles normally come in straight, flared, and then sometimes anatomical or a narrow one for children. It would be a good idea to check which handle feels most comfortable.
Just as an example of where this can be difficult to decide, a flared handle might feel more comfortable on the forehand but for a child, it might get in the way of their arm on the backhand. So, again, it might be a compromise until their hands and arms grow.
When you get a new blade, you might want to take some sandpaper to smooth off the sharper edges that children can find uncomfortable or that give them blisters.
When specifying a rubber, the particular type might come with different sponge hardness and thickness. The thicker the sponge, the faster the rubber. Not selecting the thickest sponge initially, might offer some development later without having to go to a totally new rubber once the player can handle a bit more speed.
It can be difficult for a coach to recommend equipment because players can sometimes get fixated into believing that they need “better equipment” in order to play better. They might see better players with certain equipment and simply want what they have got.
Also, equipment can be expensive and the most expensive rubbers are not always the most durable ones. If you catch the corner of the table with a brand new sheet of the latest catapult effect rubber, there is a very good chance you will put a big rip into the topsheet.
When (and how) to replace rubbers
If your child is playing a lot, rubber costs can actually add up to quite a lot over a season. So, how often to change rubbers?
Over time a rubber will gradually deteriorate. The topsheet will lose grip and the sponge will start to become “dead”. Apart from the impact damage with the table, the length of time a rubber lasts is pretty much proportional to how much it is used. Some brands and types will last longer than others (or appear to last longer), but there won’t be too much in it.
An experienced player will have a feeling for when a rubber needs changing. However, there are several rules of thumb which can be used which are based on your usage. For example, some players will log how much they play with a rubber and after about 100 hours of use consider changing them.
Another option is to divide the year by the number of times you play per week. So, if you play three times a week, then change around three times a year. The other extreme is the professional players who are changing their rubbers roughly every seven days!
In order to maximise the life of your rubber and blade, you do need to take care of them. Putting the equipment in a protective case between use is very good advice to take. Also, don’t leave the equipment out in extreme temperatures as this can damage both the rubber and the blade.
Glueing a rubber to a blade is a skill which parents can learn to do. At first, it is a bit scary to be glueing and cutting such an expensive piece of equipment. The water-based glues stick on contact, so once you are committed to the placement on the blade, you can’t easily move it. However, if you do get it wrong, it is possible to actually peel off the glue and have another go.
Here’s a YouTube video I filmed a few years back showing how to glue table tennis rubbers to a blade…
There will be a lot of advice on which glue to use. Some players at your club will swear by using non-table tennis glues. However, to avoid any doubt on suitability, it might be best to use the glue from the rubber supplier. For example, use Butterfly glue with Butterfly rubbers and Stiga glue with Stiga rubbers.
The reason I say this is because I have heard of players having some problems when they switched around. It might be some small differences in the glue viscosity and how the pores of the rubbers soak up the glue. Not all sponges absorb glue in the same way.
My final point is around having a spare blade and rubber. If your child is playing a lot and entering many competitions, it can be useful to have a backup blade setup with rubbers in the case of damage during a match. Given that blades are made from wood it can actually be pretty hard to find an identical pair of blades, though they should be very close.
For more information please ready my popular articles, The Best Table Tennis Blades and Tenergy 05 Alternatives & The Best Table Tennis Rubbers.
Probably a few years ago, when the 40mm celluloid ball was in use, there wasn’t too much written about table tennis ball brands. The balls all seemed to play in a similar way.
But, with the introduction of the 40+ plastic balls over the past few years, there has been plenty of lively discussion on the ball types that are available.
Plastic balls do play slightly differently to celluloid ones, however, beginners would not really notice this, so there isn’t really a need to change and buy new plastic balls unless you are playing competitively.
Plastic balls have also evolved in terms of quality and now they are much more consistent than they were. One disadvantage of plastic is that they seem to break more easily than before and also because there are different manufacturing methods this can create some playing difference between the brands.
If you are a believer in the philosophy of marginal gains (as I am) then making sure you practice with the brand that you will be using in a competition is something to consider in the days prior. Tournaments will declare which ball they are using beforehand, so it is a good idea to have at least one of those specific balls with you on the day, so your child can knock up with it before the matches start and get used to it.
For a comprehensive review of the differences between the four types of plastic 40+ table tennis balls (DHS/Double Fish, XuShaoFa, Butterfly, and Nittaku) please read my article, The Best Table Tennis Balls.
One thing you might notice when attending tournaments is that some of the junior players are wearing shirts with table tennis brand sponsorship logos on them. Some of these might be because the club that they are a member of has a sponsorship arrangement but some might be players with individual sponsorship deals.
Why are some players sponsored?
The degree of sponsorship potential is very much dependent on the country in which the player lives and of course their playing standard. It mainly comes down to economics related to the sport. Countries which have a large playing base and have a big market for table tennis equipment may have more opportunities than countries where the sport isn’t played so much.
Equipment sponsorship deals are generally coming from one of two places. Either directly via the brand supplier in the region or via one of the sales agents of a brand. Again this is a very country specific thing. Often in countries such as the UK, branded products are sold via distributors and agents – as the majority of the brands are actually based outside of the UK. These local companies are often the first step in getting any form of equipment sponsorship as they are the people who are working with the clubs and attend tournaments.
I think we can safely assume the brands/suppliers are not actively looking to find new players, as typically there are many more players wanting support than they can accommodate, but they will be keeping an eye on the best up and coming players. They will want to try and identify who are going to be the future front running players and most likely to be successful in the longer term, not just after one tournament success.
Some of the support they are giving is, of course, to promote the brand directly but quite a bit is to also encourage the better young players to play more and stay with the sport. Clearly, the more players who are competing, the better it is for growing the sport.
An equipment deal can seem like a big thing to obtain in terms of the benefits it brings, however by the time a player is reaching the standards needed for a national junior team, the actual equipment costs will be becoming more of a minor part of the total costs involved in training and competing at that level. So, basically, you need to spend quite a lot of money to get good enough to save a bit of money with equipment sponsorship.
What are sponsors looking for in order to grant a contract?
Clearly, table tennis ability has to come pretty near the top of the list but there are other factors to consider too. The degree of training and coaching the player is receiving might have an impact in terms of providing credibility to the request.
In fact, a well-respected coach can effectively act as a reference for a player when called upon. It might not be just playing standard that the sponsor is asking questions about. They will be looking for players who have a strong mental game and are more likely to remain in the sport despite setbacks that they may face along the way.
Social media is having a very major impact on marketing for companies, so being responsible, professional, and effective at social media can be an attractive proposition for sponsors. Keeping an update of your table tennis progress via a blog, Facebook, Twitter etc. demonstrates how you can help a potential sponsor to promote their brand – especially if you have a lot of followers. Also, if they Google your name, what will they find?
With the growing use of YouTube streamed and recorded matches, this can be an opportunity for players to show their developing skills to remote sponsors. However, you should also watch out because a video doesn’t lie. Any form of bad or unsporting behaviour, such as throwing bats or kicking barriers, is now completely visible to a worldwide audience and more likely to put off sponsors than attract them!
What are the contracts like?
The details of player contracts are usually confidential so it is not possible to give any specific details on what they may contain. However, usually, they will be time bound for a number of years.
It isn’t a one-way deal. The sponsor will expect something from the player and this can be various things, but usually the basic point is that the player would need to provide all of their image rights to the sponsor and ensure that whenever they are playing table tennis they are using only the branded products of the sponsor. They would also expect the player to be training and competing often.
The kind of equipment provided within the contract will be very much dependent on the playing standard. A junior national champion, playing in the national team, would be more or less guaranteed enough support to cover all of their equipment needs through a playing season; such as rubbers, shirts, shoes etc. They may even receive additional financial support.
Below that level, the support is probably going to be much more limited to either just a few free items or a discount on purchasing equipment at a preferential rate.
For more information on getting sponsored have a read of my article, How to Get Table Tennis Sponsorship.