I believe to become an expert table tennis player you must master the four aspects of the game (technical, tactical, physical and mental). An expert is proficient in all four areas and can be described as a ‘complete’ player. The first and most important aspect of the game to master is technique.
Table tennis is a highly technical sport. If you fail to master the fundamental techniques of the game you are likely to seriously disadvantage yourself as you attempt to improve your level of play and move up to a higher level. This is why it’s ideal to learn a correct technique from the start.
However, I understand that for many of us that wasn’t an option. If you weren’t fortunate enough to find yourself at an established club with experienced and knowledgeable coaches when you started, then there’s a good chance you had to improvise with your technique, picking up bits and pieces from other players and doing your best to copy the better players around you. Fear not! It’s possible to relearn the fundamental technique even if you’ve been playing for years, it’s just going to require some hard work and motivation to change. But first…
Why is technique important?
You may have had a coach or other player tell you that your technique on a certain stroke is not right before. Perhaps you agreed with them. But maybe you didn’t really see the problem. After all, your shots are still going on the table! And maybe your slightly unorthodox playing style actually makes it more difficult for your opponent, you think. Well, much of that may be true, but here are a couple of reasons why ‘good’ table tennis technique is important.
To improve efficiency
Have you ever played one of those hotshot twelve year olds who’s in the national team for their age group and is tearing up the local senior players despite being only four foot tall and weighing 35kg. You watch them playing and think to yourself, “How on earth do they get so much power? There’s nothing to them!” Well, they aren’t super-children, they simply have ‘perfect’ technique. Chances are they’ve had some really good coaching and been shown how to generate maximum power from their small frame.
Good technique is efficient. It gives skinny twelve year olds more power than beefy thirty year olds who aren’t using their body correctly. Mastering a solid technique can give you…
- More power
- More spin
- More control
- Faster movement
- Quicker strokes
It adds that extra level of ‘quality’ to your game. You are still going to be making the same decisions and playing the same strokes (most of the time), but you’ll be able to hit harder (making it easier to finish off points), generate more spin (making your serves and your topspins, in particular, much more dangerous), develop greater control (making it easier to keep the ball on the table), get to the ball faster and play shots in quick succession (making it more difficult for your opponent to react).
And finally, being ‘efficient’ in your play will feel much better. You’ll get a much nicer feeling when you play your shots and feel more ‘free’ in your play.
To reduce the chance of injury
I used to think that improving efficiency was the sole reason for technique and at a beginner level I think that is largely true. However, once you start playing table tennis at a higher level, and consequently at a higher intensity, your technique becomes a big factor in the chance of you getting injured. High level table tennis is fast, powerful and explosive. If you are repeatedly doing all of these movements with a sub-optimal technique you are much more likely to get injured.
This could well be the reason why you hardly ever see international level players with ‘terrible’ technique. In order to reach that level you have to practice so much, and compete so often, that if your technique was seriously wrong I reckon there’s a good chance you wouldn’t make it. You would either injure yourself repeatedly, until you correct your technique, or you’d injure yourself badly which could stop your from playing.
Lei Yang, one of the coaches on the B75 training camp in Denmark and also the technical coach for the German national team, would always link my errors in technique to injury. He would say, “If you play so tense, in your shoulders, you going to get injury.” When I pulled a muscle in my back on the fifth day of training he said to me, “This is because you always too tense.” He also said that Timo Boll’s technique is not perfect and this is the reason that he is struggling with injuries recently. Have you ever noticed that the top Chinese players seem to have careers that go on forever? Players like Wang Liqin are still among the best in the world, and injury free, in their late thirties. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they spend so much time perfecting their technique.
How to improve your technique
I hope that you now understand the importance of having a correct technique. I should point out again that I don’t believe that technique is the only important aspect of training. If you have brilliant technique but your tactical, physical and mental game is poor then you are very unlikely to become anything more than a mediocre player. But technique is a great place to start and once you have strong foundations you can begin to build the rest of your game (tactics, physical conditioning and mental strength) around it.
I will break technique down into four different areas; grip, stance, footwork, and strokes.
The first thing to master is how to hold your bat. I have always thought grip was really important, perhaps even I’ve over-emphasised the importance of having a ‘correct’ grip, but it is something that plenty of beginners and recreational players struggle with.
I should point out that there are two orthodox and accepted grips in table tennis; shake-hands (aka European) and penhold (aka Asian), although now many Asian players also use a shake-hands grip. I have very little experience with the penhold grip and therefore I coach the shake-hands technique.
I have always been really big on promoting a ‘neutral’ grip. I wrote a blog post all about why it’s important to have a neutral grip instead of a backhand or forehand dominant one. I still believe that is true but I think I’m going to need to rewrite that post.
To quickly summarise my thoughts on grip; I used to think it was super important to be 100% neutral in your grip. I would tell my players that their grip was slightly forehand dominant and this might make backhand difficult, or they had a backhand grip and this could make it difficult to generate as much power on the forehand. Now I think it’s okay to be slightly forehand or backhand dominant, as long as you have a relatively neutral grip that allows you to play both forehands and backhands.
However, I have found something else that I think is super important, and that is the part of your hand you use to hold the racket. It seems that the majority of players hold the racket in their palm, and then wrap their fingers around the handle as an after thought (I used to do this too). When I was being coached by the Chinese coaches in Denmark they advocated a completely different approach, hold the bat with your fingers. In particular, pinch the bat between your thumb and index finger, then place the rest of your hand around the racket.
This was revolutionary for me!
If you haven’t done this before, have a go. I will be writing more about this in the future and definitely doing some videos on it as I think it is a really important technical tip that isn’t very widely known or understood. It also takes a fair bit of practice to master this new ‘feeling’ but it is completely worth it.
I wrote a blog post about stance a while back but I really want to improve it now. Your stance is hugely important as everything comes from it. Most obviously, a good stance makes it much easier to move. The majority of movement in table tennis is lateral (from side to side) and therefore we need a stance that makes quick lateral movements possible. Your stance will also effect your strokes and a poor stance can lead to technical errors in your shots.
I didn’t fully understand the importance of stance until about halfway through the Expert in a Year challenge with Sam. If you watch the first video, from our first day of training (1st January 2014) you’ll see that I only very briefly cover stance, before quickly moving on to grip and how to play a forehand drive. I think this is a common coaching mistake. We are in a rush to get our players ‘hitting balls’ and don’t spend the time we should on stance, and later, footwork.
If I were to coach a beginner from scratch again I would spend the whole first session just looking at stance. I would make sure they understand every aspect of it and why it is important. I would get them to shift their weight from one foot to the other, to understand weight transfer. I would get them to try out different stances, narrow feet, wide feet, standing upright, leaning forwards. I would make sure they are relaxed in this stance (this is really important) as we have a tendency to tense up when we are trying to put out body in an unnatural position.
It’s difficult to ‘coach’ stance via the internet. You really need to be there in front of a player to work out all the subtle errors. I think what I will try to do at some point is take a complete beginner and spend half an hour teaching them the correct stance until they fully understand it. I’ll film the session so I can upload it to YouTube and then it should be easier to self-diagnose your own problems.
Now that you’ve mastered the correct grip and stance you are probably pretty keen to start actually playing some table tennis, but hold your horses. I think you’ll do much better in the long run if you first master the basic footwork and movement patterns/steps. These are easiest to learn away from the table, for example in a gym. It’s even better if you can do them in front of a mirrored wall (I’ve become a huge fan of mirrored walls for technique work since using them for the Expert in a Year challenge).
You should start by practicing your side-stepping. You can do this is a big circle, round and round. All you are trying to do is find a rhythm and stay in your table tennis stance. This is harder than it sounds because the automatic reaction is to stand upright, when side-stepping, and dart around like a footballer. This is no good. You need to get used to sidestepping in with your knees bent, body crouched and leaning forwards, and arms out in front of you. You need to stay on the balls of your feet and keep your head low and at a constant height throughout, not bobbing up and down. Believe me, it isn’t as easy as it sounds and it doesn’t feel very natural. It’s much more work on your legs than side-stepping like a footballer would.
Once you can do that it’s time to think about the kinds of movements you’ll be doing at the table. You wont need to side-step round and round, instead you’ll probably never do more than two steps to the right, or two steps to the left. The key is changing directions quickly and keeping your balance throughout. You should practice some sidesteps in a few different routines; one right – one left, two right – two left, and so forth. Focus on balance and quickness.
There are also a few other footwork steps you can learn. For example, the one step, where you stand in your ready position and then simply lunge one leg to the side to reach the imaginary ball, play the shot, and then return back to your ready position. If there is no time for a side step this is a good option. There is also the ‘bunny hop’ as Sam and I were calling it. In this step you are constantly on the move, shifting your weight from one foot to the other without any stops in between.
Again, all this stuff is hard to describe but I’ll make some videos to upload to YouTube, once we are finished with the Expert in a Year challenge and I have a bit more time on my hands, that go through everything in detail.
The final step is to actually learn your strokes. If you have already mastered stance, grip and footwork you should be in a really good place to learn proper strokes. I think you will also learn faster than a player that doesn’t have any understanding of the first three steps.
I have written posts on some of the basic strokes and I’ll put links to them below. As with many of my other posts, I think I’ll want to rewrite them since my trip to Denmark and my experiences during the Expert in a Year challenge. I’ve learnt so much about how to coach that I think I could do a much better job now than before. For now though, until I find the time to rewrite everything, here are those posts.
How to play a…
Forehand drive – Backhand drive – Backhand push – Forehand push
I’m really keen to make some videos for these too and you can expect them to be ready by early 2015.
Technique is really important, especially if you are a beginner, but it isn’t the only important thing. Don’t become a “technique freak” as Istvan Moldovan liked to say. Don’t have improving your technique, or making your shots feel better, as your number one goal. Improving your technique should be a means to an end, which is improving your overall development as a player, and specifically your match performance.
A strong technique will help you play table tennis more efficiently, making the best use of what you’ve got, and decreasing the chance of injury.
When you tackle technique I believe you should do so in the following order; stance, grip, footwork, strokes.
I hope this look at technical training for table tennis has been useful for you and do let me know how you get on applying these principles to your own game!