Basic Table Tennis Techniques
Table of Contents
In order to start playing the real sport of table tennis, one requires the proper equipment and techniques. Although experimentation forms a large portion of one's advancement later on, in the beginning most everyone needs to learn the basics. Remember, even a wanderer had to find out how to walk one time or another.
For a more detailed discussion of table tennis equipment, visit the equipment page.
If you are just starting out, take stock of your equipment(if any):
- Does the equipment meet legal requirements(in table tennis)?
- Is the equipment in a good enough condition as to not hamper performance(very important when starting out)?
The paddle can be of any size and weight, from a lollipop to a pizza ladle. It must have one side of red and one side of black.
The table must be 9 feet long by 5 feet wide, and the surface must be 30 inches from the floor. A white line divides the table lengthwise, and white lines form the border of the top surface. The net used must be 6 inches high, spanning the entire table at the middle. Although not required for most uses(as some nets are 5 feet long), regulations stipulate for a net to be legal, it must stretch out 6 inches beyond the table on both sides.
The ball can either be orange or white, depending on light conditions and/or personal preferences. Try to buy the best quality balls possible, even for practice. This will pay off in the long run. Three-star balls denote top quality...but even there, quality differs between manufacturers. Cost is a good barometer of quality here, about $2 each for a respectable ball. They usually get cheaper in bulk. Good balls last longer and play more consistently for better practice results.
Try to wear nonreflective clothing, choosing relatively dark solid colors whenever possible. Wear shoes that allow quick movements of the feet and easy ankle control. Avoid running shoes or any shoes designed mainly for forward movements.
If you are buying your first equipment, follow these tips:
- Try to buy from an established table tennis dealer if possible, although this means you will likely be doing the buying over mail. The advantages include knowledgeable service(not always-check) and a wider selection of quality equipment. If you must buy from your local sporting goods store(many retailers carry table tennis equipment), then the section to look would be most likely "games(an unfortunate case in the US)" or "racquet sports(more often under games)." Although you get your equipment quicker, the selection is severely limited and often of "game quality." Make sure the above guidelines for legal equipment is followed when purchasing.
- When buying your first racket, look for rackets with inverted rubber-that is, rubber with a smooth flat surface, as opposed to the pimples out rubber with little "pips" jutting out of the surface. The modern game leans toward inverted surfaces.
- Assuming you will be playing with the shakehand grip, racket selection shouldn't be a problem as there are plenty of options to choose from.
- When selecting a table, definitely go for quality. While there is no need to spend over $700 on one, make sure the table you are buying is ITTF-legal and durable. Do not store the table outdoors unless it is an outdoor table. Keep the table clean and away from heavy traffic(i.e. store when not in use).
- Try to only buy three star balls, both for practice and games. The color of balls (white or orange) is left entirely to the reader's preferences. White is the predominant color today, and it is the predominent color used in competitions.
Many people have the misconception that table tennis is just a "game", and therefore is to be regarded as such, even to the point of not warming up properly before play! If the "game" in question had been light frisbee, then warming up would not be as much of a concern simply due to the fact that throwing and retrieving frisbees don't tax the body that much(usually).
Warming up helps get your body ready for the rapid coordinated moves that make table tennis such an intensive sport. There are no special or unique exercises; it's just like warming up before playing any other sport. A light jog, jumpropes, and various stretches help loosen your muscles and get you "in gear" for optimum performance. When selecting the types of stretches(proper techniques can be learned from books or knowledgeable people-don't overdo it!), try to cover all parts of the body, from your neck to the ankles. When you are done playing, perform cool-down exercises-essentially the same as warm-ups to gradually improve overall flexibility and fitness.
Also remember to before picking up the paddle:
- Pack water and towels if necessary
- Take extra balls along in case one breaks or gets lost(very easily done in garages!)
- Keep 8 feet of space all around the table clear of traffic or debris
- Make sure the lighting conditions meet practical standards(see if you can reasonably track the ball in play)-bad lighting can ruin a practice
- And finally-be anxious! Get excited about what you will accomplish, set goals and work towards them, do anything to make practicing and playing fun. After all, if you aren't interested in table tennis, you couldn't have read this far.
Guide to Grips
The way one chooses to hold his/her table tennis paddle will make a big difference in his/her play. There are currently 3 "standard" grips existing in table tennis today. Because of lack of experience/expertise, this website will cover techniques in shakehand only, but most strokes will transfer over to the other grips with only a few modifications.
The shakehand grip is the prevalent grip of table tennis today, used by the majority of recreational and professional players. The paddle is gripped with all fingers, with the thumb resting by itself on the opposite side as the index finger. The grip is analogous to shaking a hand at an approximately 45-degree angle. The pinky, ring, and middle finger wrap around one side of the handle, and the index finger rests on the bottom edge of the rubber. The thumb rests on the top of the handle on the other side, thumbnail perpendicular to the wood. It should point in the same direction as the index finger. When held out straight in front of you, the paddle's edge should form a line with the outstretched arm. The grip should feel natural, with no particularly uncomfortable areas. Too tight a grip can sacrifice control and power. Be sure to grab the handle loosely enough so that another person would have no trouble plucking it from your hand. But at the same time, maintain enough tightness so the paddle won't fly out of your hand during an intense loop shot.
Some of the advantages of using the shakehand grip are:
- Equally strong forehand and backhand advantage(provided you pay equal attention to both)
- Wide selection of paddles to choose from
Once a dominant grip in its heyday, the penhold grip still has its supporters, world class players included. The racket is gripped as one would grip a pen, with the thumb and index finger, with the rest of the fingers being tucked away on the other side. There are several variations to this grip, and two types of paddles to reflect this. The "chinese" paddles are basically shakehand paddles with a shortened handle. The remaining fingers rest against the other side. "Japanese" paddles have a raised handle, which is called a "hook." The index finger curls around the "hook" for extra leverage. Which one you use depends on personal preferences. Penhold paddles sometimes only have one side covered with a rubber sheet. This makes them lighter than most shakehand paddles. The other side must still comply with the paddles rule, so it is usually painted red or black, or covered with a sheet of colored paper.
Some of the advantages of using the penhold grip are:
- A dominant forehand game(while backhands are possible with this grip, the vast majority of penhold players rely on their forehand game)-quick feet are required to sustain this!
- Since it is not as widely used, an element of surprise against opponents unfamiliar with the grip
The Ready Position/The Importance of Footwork
The typical playing area for table tennis is about 20 feet by 40 feet(the legal dimensions). The actual table width only occupies 5 feet of the 20. This means in tough matches, the ball will come in at a variety of angles, some very sharp. Therefore, despite the seemingly diminutive area the table tennis table covers compared to most sports playing areas/fields, the ability to move the body around becomes extremely important. But table tennis footwork also requires precision. The smaller steps that get you in perfect position for that forehand loop are just as important as the veritable leaps one may make while traversing the table edge in pursuit of a corner smash. Before attempting anything at the table, however, the correct stance must be performed.
A ready stance must be kept at all available times during play to ensure maximum control, power, and consistency. The typical table tennis stance is a slight crouch forward, feet shoulder-width apart. Make sure you bend your knees and ankles. Most of the weight should be on the balls of the feet, because this makes quick sudden movements and pivots necessary for good shots much easier. The upper arm should be close, but not flush, to your body. The forearm and racket should point forward, which requires that the elbow be bent. A relaxed posture is important, adjust the stance until most of the tension is gone. Just make sure you aren't so relaxed that slouching occurs; the idea is to maintain the optimum position for well-coordinated and explosive movements.
For right-handers, the place to stand is on the backhand half of the table. The right foot should be slightly to the left of the center line. Try to have the left foot slightly forward. Stand at an enough distance away from the table so that the tip of your paddle barely touches the edge of the table. This should mean standing fairly close to the table; the arm should be close to the body, not outstretched. Also, the body should face the table at a slight angle, with the right foot and shoulder slightly farther away from the endline than the left. This allows good positioning for both forehands and backhands.
When the ready position is mastered, the necessary footwork can follow. Remember, footwork is done primarily to position the player for an optimum shot, one that doesn't have to be reached for. Therefore any unnecessary movement is a waste of time and energy, besides allowing your opponent to catch you unawares with a shot opposite your direction of movement. Most players use a side to side shuffle when moving across the table. Doing so allows one to face the table at all times, important when the ball is coming in very quickly. The same principles are used whether moving left or right. The foot in the direction of movement takes a short step in that direction, and at the same time the weight of the body shifts to that foot. At the end of the shuffle, the other foot slides to take its place alongside the foot that moved first.
The timing of the footwork is as important as the actual execution.
If done too early, the opponent will notice and likely fire a shot where
you weren't planning on going. Catch it too late and you will find yourself
reaching for the ball, or worse. Pay close attention to the opponent when
he/she is getting ready to hit; prepare yourself and don't start moving
until he/she has started his/her stroke. Follow the ball with your eyes
and use the feet to move to the best shotmaking area relative to where
the ball lands. Don't start the stroke until you have finished moving.
After hitting the ball, get back into the ready stance immediately, in
anticipation for a return that could go anywhere. When the action gets
fast, all of these movements and decisions must be made in split seconds.
Training will help you get there.
For all of the strokes described below, the arm should be very relaxed. Power should be concentrated on the waist, forearm, and wrist (acting together) like a whip, with the upper arm moving very little. Almost every shot requires a little movement to get into correct positioning-in other words, you can't stand still and play table tennis! And always remember to return to the ready position following each shot.
Drives, a light topspin stroke that produces a low ball trajectory, are the primary offensive strokes in table tennis. One employs drives to force errors and to set up winners. The mastery of both the forehand and backhand drives is important because it will give your opponent less options when using attacking strokes of his/her own. In executing this and all other offensive strokes, the usage of the entire body in unison is important for consistency and power. Keep in the ready position until you are ready to execute the shot and remain relaxed but responsive(this is very important).
FOREHAND DRIVE: Keep the upper arm close, but not flush, to the torso. The forearm(form a rough 90 degree bend with the upper arm) should be drawn back to the 3 o'clock position, and let the waist turn naturally along with the arm(this is where relaxing is important). Shift your weight toward the right foot at the same time. While shifting your weight back to your left foot, swing forward with a slight upward motion, with the waist providing additional force in the swing. Use the elbow as a pivot point; it should not move so much up and down, but also should be allowed to move slightly forward in the follow-through. Contact with the ball should be made slightly to the side of the body after the top of the bounce. Make sure the paddle is somewhat closed(or facing downwards at an angle), and remains that way throughout the stroke. Follow-through should finish when racket is parallel with the left shoulder. Immediately return to the ready position. The left foot should be slightly in front of the right for support.
BACKHAND DRIVE: From the ready position, the waist turns left with the racket pointing towards the 9 o'clock position. When following through, contact with the ball is made in front of the body, slightly after the top of the bounce. Let the elbow again act as the pivot point, and snap the forearm forward in a slightly upward direction. Make sure the paddle is closed. Follow-through should finish naturally(about 12~1 o'clock) after contact with ball. The left foot should be slightly ahead of the right.
Pushes are the basic backspin shots, used to change the pace of an exchange or to return certain very low and close shots such as backspin serves. A generally defensive shot, it allows placement anywhere on the table that is difficult to attack when executed properly. All pushes should be done with the right foot stepping in. The ball is contacted right after the bounce with an open racket. How open the racket is depends on the intensity of backspin on the ball. Heavier backspin requires a more open racket to return over the net. Try to keep the ball low, varying the amount of backspin and racket angle.
FOREHAND PUSH: Bring the racket slightly up and back, while keeping the elbow at your waist. Bend the wrist back. Swing forward with a downward motion, and when the racket reaches the ball snap the wrist forward for extra racket speed. With an open racket, graze the bottom half of the ball. An ideal contact point is right after the ball bounces. Never push a ball at the top of the bounce, because the resulting return will pop the ball high enough for the opponent to execute a smash. Try to hit the ball in front and slightly to the right of your body. Follow through forward and slightly down, and return to the ready position.
BACKHAND PUSH: Bring the racket slightly up and back, close into your stomach while cocking the wrist back. This time try to contact the ball directly in front of your body, and remember to keep the elbow still while the forearm and wrist move forward and down. Graze the bottom of the ball and follow through.
Note : Keep the push stroke gentle, as being too hasty often makes the ball go long, or too high. Keep in mind that unlike the drive, the push is more of a finesse and 'touch' shot. As you advance the stokes can start becoming more aggressive, with a variety of spins.
Blocking allows a player to use the opponent's force against him/her, and is done immediately after the bounce so that maximum control and speed are retained. Adjusting the racket angle depends on the severity of topspin on the ball; the more topspin there is, the more you should close the racket. Being essentially a cut-down drive, there is very little backswing and follow-through. Think of blocking as a backup shot that can be used when there isn't enough time for a full drive or loop. Depending on how much control you have over the block, it can be used offensively as well. Use your wrist to vary the direction of these block-returns, and make sure footwork takes you to the most choice areas to hit in.
The smash, or kill, is the put-away stroke of table tennis. Any ball that is high enough and close enough to the opponent's side can be smashed, although some opportunities are better than others. Smashing combines waist, forearm, and wrist movement to the fullest extent. A good smash is very hard to return, but it can be done. Do not dawdle after you have executed a smash. The ball is contacted at the top of the bounce at its highest point.
FOREHAND SMASH: Similar to the drive, the key differences
- A longer backswing
- Greater weight transfer during swing
- Faster, more intense snapping of the forearm when contacting ball
- Depending on ball height and position, the racket is closed more than usual to keep the ball in the court
- Longer follow-through, but don't forget to anticipate a possible return!
BACKHAND SMASH: Again, use the guidelines above and apply them to the backhand drive. Be sure to snap the wrist more as you contact the ball and finish in a long follow-through.
Note on smashes: Don't just indiscriminately smash the ball when you find the opening; instead, try to direct the ball to a location where it is least likely to be hit back, accidentally or intentionally.
Basic Service Techniques
The following are the basic rules of service:
- The ball must be held above the table level in order for the opponent and umpire to see it.
- The ball must be held in the palm of the hand with fingers stretched, and tossed vertically at least six inches.
- The ball must be struck only on the way down.
- The ball must be struck behind the end line.
- The ball must be visible to the receiver until it is struck (2002 rule change).
Serves are entirely up to the player; there are no specific serves that must be used by everybody. But to begin with, there are some basic serves that should be experimented with. Imparting spin on these serves should be concentrated mostly on the wrist.
Backspin- just like pushing or chopping, a backspin serve is executed with an open racket slicing the bottom of the ball.
Topspin- like driving, topspin serves can be done hitting with a flat racket, or like looping, where the player grazes the top of the ball with a closed racket for more spin.
Sidespin- simply hit the back of the ball in a left-to-right or right-to-left motion, as desired. To make the stroke easier, try holding the racket in front of you and brushing the bottom of the ball in a pendulum motion.
Notes on serves: Be sure to assume the ready position as soon as you finish your service motion. Keep the ball as low as possible to prevent an early attack by the opponent. Experiment with all the spins; mix up your serves during games. The spins are not the only thing that should be varied. Practice placing the ball in different depths and in different directions. Unlike doubles, a singles serve can go anywhere on the opponent's court. The advantage to service is the uncertainty faced by the returner. Be as inconspicuous as possible.